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Community plans ‘alternate graduation’ for North Port HS seniors

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NORTH PORT, Fla. (WFLA) – District leaders in Sarasota County announced the cancellation of graduation ceremonies last week. Interim Superintendent Mitsi Corcoran grew emotional as she made the announcement.

“This was not an easy decision for anyone. It has actually been agonizing for us and every one of our principals since graduation is a right of passage not only for our high school seniors, but our 5th and 8th graders as they transition to their new schools,” said Corcoran.

For North Port High School seniors, graduation was scheduled for July 16. Now, a group of locals is working to plan an ‘alternate graduation’ for the class of 2020 that same day.

Justin Willis is one of the two organizers of the event — neither have children graduating this year.

“I have a 460 kids graduating this year. Just because I don’t have a child who is actually going to be walking the stage, this is our community, this is our future,” said Willis.

Planning has only been underway for a few days, but Willis and other organizers are working hard to make it happen. He says safety is a top priority with coronavirus concerns looming.

“There are a lot of safety precautions that go into this. We are following all of the CDC guidelines, we are following the state guidelines and we are following our local guidelines as well,” said Willis.

The ‘alternate graduation’ for North Port High School students will be broken down into six different sessions throughout the day capped at 75 students per session. They will be held every two hours starting at 9:30 a.m. on July 16. Seats and handrails will be sanitized between events.

Everyone attending the outdoor graduation will be required to wear a face mask and get their temperature checked. Seniors will be provided with masks.

Seats will be spread out eight feet apart and each student will be limited to two guests. Additional family members or friends will be allowed to park and listen to the graduation on the radio. “WKDW radio will be airing all of the graduations live on air during the day,” said Willis.

The ‘alternate graduation’ is expected to cost around $10,000.

School Board Member Eric Robinson tells 8 On Your Side he plans on attending some of the graduations and is helping cover the costs of renting the green space outside North Port City Hall.

“If the community and the parents want to give their children a sense of recognition and they asked me for my support, I don’t feel comfortable saying no,” said Robinson. “I give away my school board salary every year and so this seems like a good thing to do it for,” he continued.

The ‘alternate graduation’ is a private event and is not connected with the district in any way.

“We don’t want anyone to think that it is a graduation per se, but it is an alternative to the canceled graduation. Come out, honor your senior, be here, be present in the moment, and get in your car immediately whenever it is done,” said Willis.

Organizers understand the level of fear associated with the pandemic.

“We respect anybody who cannot attend because of the fear of COVID-19,” said Willis.

Students and families who do plan on attending are asked to RSVP by emailing justincodywillis@gmail.com.

The Sarasota County School District is also celebrating seniors amid the pandemic and despite cancelling graduation ceremonies.

“We have tried to find ways to celebrate our high school graduates by giving every graduate a yard sign to celebrate their achievements. We have created virtual or digital graduation ceremonies that these students will be able to watch through the years and will be getting on what would be their scheduled graduation day in July. Every high school principal is working on a ceremony to bring in their graduate and their families into their school in their caps and gowns. They will walk across the stage, take pictures with the school staff and their family and have an individualized celebration,” said the interim superintendent. “As a district, we need to follow the guidelines that can best keep our children safe,” she continued.

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