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CMS announces non-traditional graduation plan

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Earnest Winston announced graduation plans for the Class of 2020 at tonight's Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education meeting.

Winston said that the gathering restrictions and the social-distancing requirements in effect during the COVID-19 pandemic have made a traditional in-person graduation impossible for the Class of 2020. Instead, CMS will hold prerecorded virtual graduations that will feature the elements of a traditional ceremony, including speeches by distinguished visitors, the valedictorian, salutatorian and senior class representative; and the reading of each graduate's name with available photos. Students and families will be able to watch a virtual graduation prior to receiving their diplomas, which will be provided during a drive-through ceremony. A future school-based celebration will also be held for graduates.

"This is the first graduation that I'll oversee as superintendent and I wish with all my heart that it could be a traditional one. But the safety of our graduates, their families and our staff must come first," Winston said. "Unfortunately, it has been apparent since the COVID-19 pandemic began that we would not be able to celebrate the Class of 2020 in a traditional way."

Winston said that it was still possible to recognize the Class of 2020 and its achievements despite the limitations imposed by the pandemic. He said that a task force had been convened in March to look at all the options, and that it included experts, parents, staff and graduating seniors.

The CMS Graduation Task Force was created to develop a memorable 2020 graduation, despite challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. The task force reviewed all aspects of graduation, including safety and well-being, traditional and hybrid options and senior celebrations. State guidelines and guidance from local health administrators, local law enforcement and other subject-matter experts were considered, along with more than 1,000 survey responses and emails suggesting alternatives.

One of the biggest challenges for the task force was the size of many graduating classes at individual schools. Ardrey Kell and Myers Park, two of the largest CMS high schools, had nearly 800 graduates each this year. In all, the district has almost 10,000 graduating seniors and anticipated more than 102,000 guests would have attended the 2020 ceremonies.

"A virtual graduation wasn't something that seniors wanted as a whole," said Dream Allen, task force member and Rocky River High senior. "But being on the task force and being told all the safety measures and guidelines that must be followed, it made sense to everyone that a virtual graduation was the best option."

The task force developed three virtual options for graduation ceremonies, which were shared with seniors in a graduation survey. Seniors were asked to review the three options and indicate their preference. The superintendent reviewed the survey results before making his final decision.

Erica Nolan, a senior and student body president at Hawthorne Academy of Health Sciences said, "The only option that really made sense was a virtual graduation."

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