Horry County Schools leans toward in-person graduations at stadiums, convention center

Grand Strand

CONWAY, SC (WBTW) – Horry County high schools may be able to have in-person graduations this spring, but educators are trying to balance safety and properly honoring the class of 2020.

Horry County Schools appears to be backing away from having only virtual graduations for the district’s high schools. The district announced the change last month after South Carolina school buildings were closed for the rest of the spring semester due to the coronavirus pandemic. More than 1,800 people signed a petition opposing virtual graduations for HCS.

The solution might not be the same for each school.

“I think it’s very important, it’s paramount that we get the kids together,” said Chris Hardwick, a school board member representing Loris. “They didn’t know March 13th was going to be their last day together.”

HCS has one month to plan in-person ceremonies for about 3,000 seniors over three days, but they’ll look a lot different due to COVID-19.

“We want to celebrate, but we also want to protect our students, protect our parents and protect our employees,” said superintendent Dr. Rick Maxey.

Principals told the school board Monday night about ways all seniors can have their graduation day moments, while not taking any health risks, especially for students who may have medical issues.

“We were just really concerned about leaving any child behind to have the opportunity to march because it may be the first graduate to ever come across the stage,” said Vann Pennell, who’s the principal of St. James High School and leading the county’s principals in making recommendations to the board.

Students at Carolina Forest High School, which is the largest in the county, propose individual ceremonies, where each graduate and immediate family members would receive a diploma by themselves.

“This individualized ceremony will allow seniors a way to share an intimate moment of celebration that still keeps everyone involved in safe distance away from others,” said principal Gaye Driggers, reading a letter from the senior class president.

The state says if in-person ceremonies are held, graduates should only have one or two guests. As for locations, the school board is leaning towards using football stadiums or the 100,000 square foot Myrtle Beach Convention Center.

District officials and principals will discuss what option would fit a school’s needs, especially when it comes to physical distancing.

“We could provide masks to all the graduates and put them on their chairs,” said Janice Morreale, a board member representing St. James and Socastee. “They could be unique to their schools. You could do your school colors or your school logo on them.”

Neil James, who’s a board member representing HCS’s smallest high school in Green Sea Floyds, says it’s also important to have options for parents to be involved.

“I certainly do not want to eliminate the opportunity for kids to walk across the stage and have some representation of their family viewing it,” he said.

Board chair Ken Richardson pointed out the convention center may be easier for livestreaming to anyone who can’t be at a ceremony. Sherrie Todd, who represents Myrtle Beach and Carolina Forest, says the convention center is available for when the graduations are usually held and it could cost $11,000 to have ceremonies there.

Board members also agreed to not have drive-in or drive-up graduations. They also will not postpone ceremonies, saying graduates may not stay home by the time it’s safe to have a normal ceremony. Virtual ceremonies are also considered a “worst case scenario” at this point.

The school board is expected to have a final decision next Monday to plan the ceremonies for the first week of June.

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