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High schools throughout the United States and in West Virginia have had to reimagine graduation for the Class of 2020. Many have already had drive-through, or drive by, graduations, some have done virtual ones, and others hold out hope to also have some sort of traditional ceremony later this summer.
For about 18,000 high school seniors in West Virginia, the final semester of their student career was turned upside down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“You got those last couple months taken away from you. We didn’t realize we were never going back,” said Oak Hill High School senior Marcayla King. “We didn’t think that we weren’t ever going to see each other again, or at least until graduation … We couldn’t use those last couple months to spend time and make memories and stuff.”
When the governor closed schools for good for the rest of the semester, it quickly became clear: No prom or big senior parties. But what about graduation?
Schools across the state are trying to get creative: Some schools asked students and their family members to drive up to a designated location to receive a diploma in cap and gown and snap a picture or two.
Ripley High School in Jackson County held a parade for its 2020 graduates, announcing their names and future plans on a loudspeaker on the main drag Downtown.
And King’s high school, like some others in West Virginia, had a drive-through graduation. School officials personally delivered all diplomas to everyone’s house. And the school plans to have a traditional graduation ceremony outside later this summer.
“They’re going to have us seated six feet apart, and they’re going to broadcast it live and stuff, too, so like, parents can hear it and see it,” King said.
At the end of March, the West Virginia Department of Education created a Graduation Task Force to survey all 55 county school boards and figure out what a 2020 graduation in a pandemic could look like.
“Our goal with the task force was to really pay attention to what people wanted to do with their senior graduations,” said Jan Barth, assistant superintendent of schools, division of teaching and learning. “And we were trying to figure out ways to make sure that they had a face to face graduation if the pandemic would allow for that.”
Barth, who’s also a member of the task force, said the consensus from the beginning was to hope and plan for something traditional later in the summer. And she said the majority of high schools in West Virginia are doing that.
“I think a lot of people got good ideas about how to do it as traditionally as they possibly can, within the guidelines of the CDC requirements and the governor’s guidelines,” she said.
Those guidelines include social distancing, wearing masks and gloves, and having hand sanitizer available.
But these guidelines aren’t mandatory, and Barth said how the graduations were shaped was ultimately decided on by the local county school boards and school districts.
During some of the recent drive-through graduations, not every school followed these guidelines to the letter.
Take Martinsburg High School in Berkeley County.
During its drive-through graduation, many students teared up or cheered as they got out of their vehicles. Family members looked on from their cars taking photos and honking horns. Teachers stood together up the street waving the school colors and hitting cowbells.
“We wanted to celebrate the students on the day they would have graduated,” said Principal Trent Sherman.
But something was missing from almost all of the staff members — protective gear to fight the coronavirus — including Principal Sherman, who shook hands with nearly every student while not wearing gloves or a mask.
Before the event, Sherman said he didn’t have any health concerns for the evening, because the area was open and outside.
“We got open air, “ he said, “it’s nice out here; a little bit warm, but I think it will be good.”
And Martinsburg High School wasn’t alone in these lax practices.
Jan Barth said she was aware that some schools weren’t following guidelines strictly. She said her team provided all manner of guidelines for schools to follow, but at the end of the day — they’re only guidelines.
“This is not state code. It’s not state policy. It’s a local school district decision and they have all the information they need,” she said. “They had the social guidance information that they needed from the governor’s office.”
Since early May, Gov. Jim Justice has been slowly reopening West Virginia’s economy. And while the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources says we remain below the case rate that would require the state to start closing again, there are still new cases of COVID-19 being discovered every day across the state.
In Berkeley County, where Martinsburg High is located, coronavirus testing has recently become more available to the public, and the number of positive cases has grown from roughly 25 per week to between 40 and 50 new cases each week. That’s according to Dr. Terrence Reidy, health officer for the Berkeley-Morgan County Health Department and the Jefferson County Health Department.
Berkeley County has also seen the highest number of positive coronavirus cases in the state.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” said Dr. Reidy over Skype. “That either the masks aren’t important, or I don’t have to worry about it, or that this is not a real virus, and it’s not really deadly. And that’s just not true.”
Reidy cautioned that as things continue to reopen, the way we interact with one another must change to limit the spread of the virus.
Reidy acknowledges that social change is hard, but he said if people don’t make the effort to take precautions, things will only get worse — especially in the Eastern Panhandle.
“To me, this is still the first wave coming in from Baltimore and Washington,” he said. “It’s not so much the wave, as the tide coming in. We know that every week or so they’re going to be more and more cases. And it may change a little bit, but with time it’s going to increase.”
As some high schools in West Virginia begin moving forward with traditional graduations, state officials are urging staff and students to be conscientious of others, to follow social distancing guidelines, and to wear a mask when inside a public space or when in close proximity to others.