COVID-19 may have thwarted area seniors’ graduation plans, but the schools and the city have improvised to make sure their milestone moment gets the spotlight it deserves.
If all goes according to plan, Hillsborough County Public Schools’ senior class of 2020 will don their caps and gowns and get their diplomas onstage in July. But one thing living in the time of COVID-19 has taught us all is that the plans can change at any time.
At least graduating seniors from the Plant City area now don’t have to worry about whether they’ll get a special day.
Mayor Rick Lott, Plant City High School principal Susan Sullivan and Berry Fine Productions director Gail Lyons announced late last week the senior class will be sent off Plant City-style: with a big parade that will take the kids through midtown, downtown and south down to Plant City High School.
“These kids have lost so much,” Sullivan said. “They’ve given up so much. We want our seniors to know we support them and believe in them. We want to send them off in a strong fashion. We appreciate their sacrifices.”
Everyone involved pointed to the strength of the seniors’ will to work and succeed no matter what life threw at them. The biggest statistical tell is the area’s graduation rates compared to the rest of Hillsborough County, Lott said, the area is the only one in the district with a graduation rate above 90 percent and Durant, Plant City and Strawberry Crest are all graduating more than 95 percent of their seniors. In Plant City High School’s case, the 96.8 percent rate is the highest in the school’s history.
Lott also pointed out that these seniors have grown up during challenging times for the nation, and that they didn’t let the weight of the world bring them down speaks volumes to their willpower.
“I think that if you look at this graduating class, most were born in 2001 when 9/11 occurred,” Lott said. “Then, obviously, their elementary years through middle school, they went through one of the worst economic times of all time. Halfway through their senior year, a pandemic hit. They’ve shown strength, endurance and perseverance. We, as a city, need to congratulate them and give them confidence that we’re behind them every step of the way.”
In March, shortly after schools shut down all operations for what was then the foreseeable future, Sullivan thought of the idea and kept it in her back pocket in case Governor Ron DeSantis would later announce everybody was done for the school year.
“We started talking about it probably about the time school was canceled, that first week we didn’t come after spring break and we were speculating in April we wouldn’t come back at all,” Sullivan said. “Once the governor declared we wouldn’t come back to school, we decided we were gonna do this.”
When DeSantis finally declared schools weren’t going to reopen, Sullivan met with Lott and city officials to pitch the idea. It wasn’t hard to sell.
“We had the attitude of how can we do it safely, abide by social distancing and also show courage and strong will that we still can come out as a community and congratulate this group of grads,” Lott said. “Our goal was to not let COVID-19 rob them of this final experience.”
The rest of the puzzle pieces quickly fell into place. Plant City Police Department worked with the city on the route, security and measures that could be taken to make sure onlookers follow social distancing protocols. Berry Fine Productions immediately agreed to sponsor the parade and the Florida Strawberry Festival didn’t hesitate to lend its financial support. Finally, the parade itself was expanded beyond just PCHS: now students from Durant, PCHS, Crest and Simmons Career Center can take part in the parade and get their time to shine.
“Instead of having an attitude of ‘we can’t,’ everybody had an attitude of ‘we can,’” Lott said. “This shows you the character of Plant City.”
Students from these schools who wish to participate can register online — application forms and other information can be found on their Edsby accounts — or talk to their principals for more information. All participants must stay inside their cars or trucks the whole time and must be 18 to drive, but carpooling is allowed and parents who wish to drive their kids along the route will be able to do so. All grads are encouraged to wear their caps and gowns, and everyone who participates will get gifts at the end of the route.
The parade route will start at 10 a.m. May 30 in front of MADZone Jumphouse in the area of Evers and Wheeler streets, right across from the Village Green fountain area of midtown, and will turn right onto Reynolds Street to go through the heart of downtown. The parade will take a right onto Collins Street and continue all the way down to Maki Road, where it will take a right and come to a stop in PCHS’s east parking lot. The length of the route, Lott said, allows plenty of space for onlookers to keep a safe distance from each other. Anyone who feels healthy and wants to watch is encouraged to do so, but should keep in mind the social distancing guidelines will be followed as if people were going to a park to walk around, go shopping or anything else in a large public area.
This isn’t the first school-focused parade the area has seen lately. The PCHS baseball team got one earlier this month and, more recently, Strawberry Crest students got in their cars for a special prom parade. But this will undoubtedly be the biggest one, and for good reason.
“We want to say you guys have been dealt a very unfair and challenging hand,” Sullivan said, “and we’re proud of the way you’ve persevered.”