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ALACHUA – The class of 2020 has seen traditional education turned upside down. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all schools in the state closed on March 13 and will remain closed for the rest of the school year.

Teachers and students had to change their entire way of teaching and learning as all education went online. Not only did the Class of 2020 deal with a change in education and isolation from their peers, but for seniors it means no traditional graduation, prom or the various other activities associated with the transition out of high school.

For many the final year in high school is a transformative time of vivid memories. The last month or so of high school is a busy time finishing school work while a multitude of events and parties occur culminating in the graduation ceremony, which has been a tradition throughout history. The class of 2020 will have none of these events as traditionally conducted. Restrictions on crowd size severely limited the traditional activities associated with senior year, especially the final school month when stay-at-home order even eliminated social contact with many of their friends.

Each high school has also created events for their own students to show school unity and pride. The City of Alachua teamed up with Santa Fe High School to honor graduating seniors by conducting an appreciation celebration event last week. On May 21, the school and city combined efforts to show their appreciation for the seniors’ hard work. Students initially came to the school in their cars to drop off textbooks and pick up caps and gowns. In what was a surprise to the graduating seniors as their cars entered the school property, they faced a line of individual signs featuring the photo and name of each student and the welcoming committees that were lined up offering congratulations and more.

As cars drove through the parking lot, stopping at designated areas, school staff gave each student a t-shirt featuring the graduating year, school name and City of Alachua logo. As the students passed each stop, they were met by applause and congratulations. The final stop was set up and funded by the City of Alachua. The city gave each student a black and red gym bag imprinted with the graduating year and the school and city logos, and containing a special message of congratulations, a variety of snacks, a Frisbee, flashlight carabiner, a pen and red thermos cup with the Class of 2020 emblazoned on it.

At the next stop they were offered a bagged lunch and drink provided by the city. City of Alachua staff and commissioners were all there to offer their support and congratulations to the students clapping and cheering as each car moved down the line. Also participating and handing out gym bags were Florida State Representative Clovis Watson, Jr. and Circuit Court Judge Susanne Wilson Bullard, both Santa Fe High School graduates.

“We wanted them to know that the city stood by them and wanted to acknowledge their achievements,” said Mayor Gib Coerper as he waved a sign congratulating the students.

All of the county’s seven high schools are developing events to make the year end special for this unique senior class, as is the school district itself. The Alachua County School District is finalizing plans for a combination of activities, programs and events to celebrate graduates, but is also asking local citizens to display messages of support for the Class of 2020 sometime during the period from May 26 through June 10, which is the final day the district will be holding graduation ceremonies. This could include messages on marquees/signs at businesses, churches, schools and other organizations, yard signs, even signs in windows or along fence lines at homes and businesses. The district is currently working with local media outlets to honor the Class of 2020 in other ways.

While traditional graduation ceremonies in auditoriums are canceled due to social distancing restrictions, the school district has arranged with the Gainesville Raceway to hold open air graduation ceremonies at the facility June 8-10 for the district’s high schools. To maintain social distancing, students and their families will drive into the Raceway and up to a decorated stage. As the graduates’ names are called out over the loudspeaker, they will get out of their cars, walk across the stage to accept their diplomas and have their photos taken. They will then get back in their cars and drive down a strip that runs next to the racetrack before exiting the facility. The Gainesville Raceway is providing their facility to the district free of charge. “We’re happy we can help the Class of 2020 have a graduation ceremony,” said track manager Mike Yurick. “We hope it will be a memorable experience for them.”

Between June 8 and 10, the senior class of 2020 will have their final ceremony before moving on in life beyond high school. “When COVID-19 closed schools, I made it a priority to have some sort of in-person graduation ceremony for our seniors,” said Superintendent Karen Clarke. “This ‘hybrid’ approach at the Raceway will give graduates the opportunity to walk across the stage in their caps and gowns while still keeping everyone as safe as possible.” Each high school will be sending specific instructions for the ceremonies directly to students and families.

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