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School leaders are 'there with them' as seniors, parents express heartbreak

Schools Superintendent Bo Caldwell, shown in a file photo. Schools Superintendent Bo Caldwell, shown in a file photo.

Bo knows.

Superintendent of Henderson County schools, Bo Caldwell knows the pain parents and students are feeling as the spring slips by without the rites of passage that families of high school seniors have anticipated at some level for 13 years.

“I’ve talked to parents and I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the words ‘disappointed’ or ‘heartbroken’ over and over,” he said. “We’re there with them.”

Instead of senior plays and awards assemblies, there are senior shoutouts on the radio. Instead of laughter and hugs in person, there’s a senior takeover of Instagram. Instead of speeches from the top students, there’s plans to release a video on June 5, what would have been graduation day. And instead of walking across a stage and receiving a diploma from their principal, seniors will hop out of a car at the school, where the principal and teachers will greet them and hand them a diploma, let them flip their tassel and pose for photos.

“We recognize that this is among the most important and cherished times of year for a young person,” Associate Superintendent John Bryant said. “They’re achieving graduation, (after) 13 years of formalized education, what that means for their families.” John Bryant said. “Those have been some of the most heartbreaking conversations, to recognize that we can’t deliver experiences that the current situation in our county, in our state and in the world doesn’t allow us to dictate.”

Within minutes of Gov. Roy Cooper’s announcement on March 14 to close schools — at first for two weeks, then ultimately extended through the end of the year — Caldwell called Bryant and started the process to plan for three priorities: Learning from home, continuing to feed children and providing child care for front-line first responders and health care workers. Some school systems, Bryant noted, took three weeks to roll out a distant learning plan.

“We did it in three days,” he said. “That’s a credit to our extraordinary curriculum instruction staff, to our teaching staff, you’re talking about a thousand people who went from a model that didn’t exist on a Friday that everything was closed to a Wednesday the following week when we had developed a structure that was in place for that. If there is anything to celebrate right now in terms of what’s been inspiring it’s been the people across our school system that have answered the bell. Over and over they have answered the bell.”

When Cooper ordered schools closed for the rest of the year, Caldwell assigned communications director Molly McGowan Gorsuch to create plans to honor seniors throughout the spring and on graduation day.

Bryant said: “Mr. Caldwell has challenged us to engage our kids in ways that allow them to be as much a part of the graduating process as possible. When you think about the drive-thru graduation, the formal processional, you think about Instagram takeovers and the kids really being part of the celebration of each other and celebration of themselves. We don’t want them to be like third-person bystanders because that’s not what graduation is. Graduation is a celebration of your personal accomplishment alongside your peers.”

Caldwell is sympathetic to calls from parents and students to schedule graduation later.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘Let’s wait.’ You give me a date when I can have a thousand people,” he said. “But right now there’s not a date. We’re doing what we can do with the parameters we have right now.”

He imagined out loud what a graduation at West Henderson High School — his alma mater — would look like.

“Even if I gave just two tickets apiece, that’s 600 parents, plus the 300 graduates, plus 100 staff,” he said. “That’s a mass gathering of a thousand. Now is that going to be able to happen in June? I don’t know. Right now nobody can tell me what I can do. All we’re doing is trying to plan with the facts that we know right now (and) do our best to celebrate those kids with what we’re being handed right now.”

Students are not the only ones who relish graduation day.

“As superintendent, as associate superintendent, as a principal, as a teacher, we love graduation,” he said. “We love to see the kids together, we love to see them in their cap and gowns and the relationships that the staff have with the children and when they walk across the stage, the reaction of teachers in celebrating because we love them. This is one of the things that we absolutely look forward to and right now we can’t, and it is disappointing.”

If they can’t duplicate a ceremony like every other graduation in history, school leaders hope to make the spring memorable as best they can.

“There so much we can’t control, there’s so much we wish we could change,” Bryant said, “but we certainly have a responsibility to celebrate and honor them and really hold them up in a way that no other class has been celebrated, because they will have a story to tell that no other class can tell.”