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School Board endorses drive-up graduation, celebration 'when allowed by law'

Henderson County School Board members on Monday endorsed plans by school administrators for drive-up graduation ceremonies and declared their support for a celebration of the class of 2020 when conditions permit.

Superintendent Bo Caldwell presented the school system's plan to honor seniors with the drive-up ceremonies, a covid-19 substitute for in-person ceremonies that is drawing emotional opposition from some students and parents.

An East Henderson High School student wrote letter to both the School Board and Board of Commissioners imploring both elected bodies to salvage graduation. County Commissioner Charlie Messer mentioned the letter at a meeting last week. (Caldwell and Associate Superintendent John Bryant responded to concerns about graduation and honoring seniors in a Lightning interview last week.)

At Monday's School Board meeting, School Board member Mary Louise Corn read the letter in its entirety. Three mothers of public school students also called on the School Board to come up with an in-person social-distancing compliant graduation, with tickets limited to two per graduate and graduates and parents spread out in the home and away football stands. Other ideas the moms had were to hold the ceremony in school parking lots with students walking across a stage and familes watching from parked cars or delaying the ceremony until large gatherings are permitted.

Angela Wilson appealed to the board on behalf of her daughter and other seniors to hold a graduation ceremony even if means postponing until social distancing rules relax.

"I believe our seniors deserve a chance to walk the stage with their friends," she said. "I know these are difficult times for everyone but high school graduation is a once-in-a-lifetime moment."

Caldwell told the board that plans are in the works for virtual celebrations of the school system's Teacher of the Year, Education Hall of Fame, Top Scholars and other year-end award winners. The school has hired a professional company to create a video.

"Right now our plans are (based on) what we know right now," he said. In what he called the "diploma ceremony," the car would pull up to the high school, the senior would hop out and walk across a stage to receive a diploma. Parents and other family members "can be part of this process," he said. "They can celebrate there with that child."

As for delaying a graduation ceremony, Caldwell said it's impossible to schedule one.

"This is not in concrete," he said. "If anybody tells us tomorrow that I can get 300 kids together at the football field we would do it, but right now we can't."

Caldwell said he's researched the options.

"Some of them are saying they're going to delay until Aug. 15," he said. Buncombe County announced it is doing a drive-up graduation ceremony similar to Henderson County's and a celebration later.

Board Chair Blair Craven said honoring seniors has been foremost on the minds of board members.

"From Day 1 since this tragedy happened we have been talking about this as a board, as an administrative team," he said. "We have not forgotten about our seniors, we have not made light of it, we have been in constant communication to figure out what we can do."

Craven recommended that administrators and principals move ahead with the drive-up graduation.

"June 5 is graduation," he said. "After that we are going to celebrate our seniors when they can all get together when the governor allows it. ... I think adding an additional celebration doesn't hurt at all, whenever we can have a celebration."

The board authorized Caldwell to change the plan and restore in-person graduation ceremonies if the governor permits large gatherings by June 5. 

"We are going to celebrate our seniors when allowed by law," Craven said.