Graduation 2020 planning continues in Southwest Virginia

Mike Still • May 23, 2020 at 5:00 PM

NORTON — Southwest Virginia school divisions are closing in on graduation ceremony plans for the Class of 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic left the region’s school systems learning how to conduct remote classes in a hurry in March, and education officials in Lee, Wise and Scott counties and Norton say their staffs are in the detail stage before unveiling how seniors will do their diploma walk.

Norton Schools Superintendent Gina Wohlford on Friday said her staff is close to the nuts and bolts for a Saturday, June 13 commencement to be held at John I. Burton High School’s Lawson-Fitchko Stadium.

“It’s definitely not your traditional graduation,” Wohlford said.

Health department input and compliance with federal Centers for Disease Control guidelines have been part of the planning process, Wohlford said, and health and safety concerns could mean a limit on the number of guests each of the 58 Burton High seniors can bring to the ceremony. Because an outdoor event would be safer for limiting seniors’ and guests’ exposure, Wohlford said a June 14 rain date has also been set.

Wohlford said that she hopes to release final details for seniors and their parents by the end of next week.

Officials at the three counties’ school divisions echoed Wohlford’s concerns and comments. Lee County Superintendent Brian Austin said that a public announcement about graduation at Lee and Thomas Walker high schools is awaiting one key detail.

“We’re waiting to hear from the company that does our diploma covers,” Austin said.

Wise County Superintendent Greg Mullins said his staff is still in the planning stage, meeting with students as part of that process.

Jennifer Frazier, secondary education supervisor for Scott County Schools, said the school board has already agreed that graduation ceremonies should be held for the seniors at Gate City, Rye Cove and Twin Springs high schools if state regulations will allow it. The board will vote June 2 to set tentative dates.

Scott County Superintendent John Ferguson, in a letter Thursday to students and parents, said the class of 2020’s lives have been bracketed by two momentous incidents.

“If there was ever a class of graduating seniors who deserve a monumental sendoff, it is the Class of 2020,” Ferguson wrote. “You entered the world during the 9/11 year, and you are embarking the real world during a pandemic. We realize you are celebrating a milestone in your life amid loss — the loss of senior experiences that simply cannot be replicated online. We believe in your resilience. Your future is bright and your determination is strong. We hope to honor your efforts and achievements soon.”

Gov. Ralph Northam, in his regular Friday COVID-19 briefing, acknowledged the pandemic “has turned all of those celebrations upsidedown.”

Northam said that Virginia Public Media will broadcast a statewide “Virginia Graduates Together” on May 29 at 5 p.m. on the state’s public television stations, including Southwest Virginia’s Blue Ridge PBS. Students and their families can submit videos, photos and messages to be shown during the program by going to vpm.org.

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