While some high schools in Virginia plan to hold virtual graduation ceremonies for their seniors during the coronavirus, not everyone in the Historic Triangle agrees with the decision.
Jennifer Tisdale, a senior at Jamestown High School, created an online petition asking the Williamsburg-James City County School Board to hold in-person graduation ceremonies before August.
“I think that it would be a lot more rewarding for students to be able to see each other in person,” she said. “The seniors have worked so hard through the year.”
Tisdale plans to major in production design at the Savannah College of the Arts.
When asked if she was open to other alternatives such as a virtual ceremony or a staggered graduation where students are separated in groups with different days, she remained adamant about holding in-person graduations.
“I would be against anything that doesn’t include everyone,” she said.
For those who feel it’s too soon to hold in-person graduation ceremonies, Tisdale said she wants to give people a choice.
“For those who don’t think it will be safe can take the necessary precautions like wearing a mask or they don’t have to go,” she added.
If Tisdale could sit down with the school board, she said she would say there are safe ways to have the graduation and Colonial Outdoor Cinemas are willing to provide projections for an outdoor ceremony.
She emailed the school board on May 4 with a link to the petition and she has yet to receive a response. If she doesn’t receive a response, she said she might call in at the next school board meeting.
Parents weigh in
“So I have a senior at Lafayette and we signed it right away,” said Donna Underwood, a Realtor with eXp Realty in Williamsburg.
Her son, Braden, is a pole vaulter on the high school track team and plans to continue the sport at the Appalachian State University in North Carolina, majoring in Recreation & Park Management.
While her biggest feeling about graduation is safety first, Underwood likes the idea of waiting a bit longer rather than “jumping the gun” and committing to a virtual ceremony on June 15.
While she’s open to breaking the graduation up into smaller groups of kids and other alternatives, she noted her son has an “interesting take” on the graduation ceremony.
“He told me although I’m blessed enough to have the opportunity to go to college, many kids don’t and this is the only graduation they will get to experience,” she said.
Underwood said her other son is graduating from Virginia Tech on Friday and the family plans to watch the virtual graduation in their living room.
“I do feel like some of the colleges may have jumped the gun,” she said. “So it’s just disappointing ––at the same time my children understand the reason they are doing it.”
Underwood is asking the school board to be patient and hold off making a final decision.
Felicia McCray-Williams’ daughter, Imani, also goes to Lafayette High School and plans to attend Chowan University but is now looking at Thomas Nelson Community College since many universities plan on offering online classes due to the coronavirus.
McCray-Williams previously worked at the front desk of a hotel in Williamsburg and was recently furloughed.
“It’s a happy moment for my daughter and it’s also a joyous moment for my friends and family,” McCray-Williams said. “Yes, definitely, I would love my daughter to have a regular graduation.”
She said she feels there should not be an alternative to her daughter’s graduation ceremony since things won’t be returning to normal.
“I would definitely tell the school board to think about their memories and their commencement ceremony and how much it meant to them,” she said. “To understand how much these kids need to have that moment.”
The school board’s response
Lisa Ownby, chairwoman of the WJCC School Board, said nothing has been decided at this time and they are considering several different options, such as having an in-person graduation in August or December, a virtual graduation or having one student and one family on the field at a time.
While she has seen parents express their opinions about graduation ceremonies, she has not seen the online petition or the survey sent to seniors.
Ownby has two children at Lafayette, a freshman and a rising junior, and her other kids also graduated there.
“I certainly know how important graduation is,” she said. “It is very important to us to be able to honor our graduates.”
Normally during this time of year, there are plays, pinning ceremonies for teachers, retirement parties and graduation.
“It’s a milestone,” Ownby said. “We want to honor our graduates, but we also have to do it in a safe way.”
Williamsburg-James City County Schools posted the following message in their Friday newsletter:
As for Friday, the WJCC Students Deserve a High School Graduation petition had 385 signatures.
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