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Freeport High School holds socially distanced graduation ceremony

Jim Thompson
jthompson@nwfdailynews.com
Northwest Florida Daily News

FREEPORT — Worries that Freeport High School might not have a “real” graduation ceremony proved at least somewhat unfounded Tuesday night, as graduates got as close to a traditional ceremony as social distancing and other accommodations to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic would allow.

“These students are deserving of this moment, and although it may have been a bumpy ride to get here, they have arrived,” Freeport High School Principal Donna Simmons told graduates seated in socially distanced chairs on the football field. A significant number of students and guests wore masks to the ceremony.

RELATED: (July 8, 2020) Walton County high school graduation plans in flux with COVID-19

Graduates were limited to four tickets to the graduation ceremony to limit crowd size, and in order to make more room in the stands, just one member of the Walton County Board of Education, Vice Chair Marsha Winegarner, attended the event.

The ongoing work to slow the spread of COVID-19, and how it has affected the members of the Class of 2020, was an underlying theme of Tuesday’s commencement exercises.

In his welcome address to his fellow graduates, their families and friends, senior class president Kobe Phillips thanked “the people who were able to make this ceremony a reality.”

Just two weeks prior to the ceremony, firm plans had not been made for the graduation. Options under consideration at that time included a drive-up ceremony, with students and families arrayed in cars in the school parking lot, as graduates left the vehicles to claim their diplomas form school district officials.

“I’m sure many of you questioned whether this event would even transpire,” Phillips said, “yet here we are.”

Phillips went on to note the health and financial challenges that the pandemic has imposed, but urged his fellow graduates to look beyond those issues, if only for the evening.

“I implore you all, as this night progress, to put those problems into the background, and view tonight as if it were May, and you were carrying out this ceremony just as it should have been.”

Also, Phillips said that “a global pandemic hasn’t stopped us from celebrating here tonight, and life won’t stop us on our many paths toward success.”

Then, to loud cheers, Phillips said, ”We are persistent, we are determined, and most of all, we’re Bulldogs!“

Next, in her commencement address, senior class vice president Adelle Strickland, sounding notes of strength and hope, noted gratefully that “we finally made it.”

Strickland went on to thank parents and family members for their “dedication, support and sacrifice” in getting the senior class members to graduation.

And, putting a positive spin on what had been a challenging school year, Strickland added, “If you stop and think about it, what our class has experienced will provide strength for us.”

In the days before Monday’s ceremony, worries about the possibility that the school would hold a “drive-up” ceremony prompted graduating senior Grace Garringer to start an online petition at Change.org.

The proposal for a drive-up graduation was floated to seniors, but not their parents, in a text message sent from the school as officials were weighing options.

The petition got more than 800 signatures, accompanied, with messages from parents and others like the one reading, “My Senior has worked hard for this one moment in time. If crowds can go to the beach then a formal graduation can be held. Sit students 6 ft apart and school personnel can wear masks.”

Ultimately, what the graduating seniors got Monday night was what school officials called a “modified-traditional graduation ceremony.” Guests were encouraged, but not required, to wear masks, and a special seating area was set aside for those who did wear masks. Also, guests were asked not to congregate either before or after the ceremony.

To accommodate those who could not attend, or opted against attending, the commencement exercises were live-streamed via Facebook. The ceremony remains available for viewing on the school’s Facebook page, at https://www.facebook.com/freeporthighschool.