At Thursday’s board of education meeting, Fort Payne Superintendent Jim Cunningham went over the planned structure for Fort Payne High School’s commencement ceremony, pandemic edition, scheduled for Thursday, May 21, 2020, at 8:00 p.m. in Wildcat Stadium.

Until this past week, it appeared unlikely that there would even be a commencement this year because of a public health order intended to slow the spread of the infectious COVID-19 novel coronavirus, but the school changed course and announced May 12 would happen after Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey amended her safer-at-home order a week ago and reopened many public spaces.

To make sure there is enough room for guests while following social distancing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each graduate will be limited to six tickets for family members to attend the event in Wildcat Stadium. The visitor’s side bleachers will be used for the first time. The gates will open at 7 p.m., with attendees given an hour to filter in gradually and take one of the designated seating clusters for their family unit, each grouping spaced out with six feet around it.

“We will follow all mandates,” Cunningham said. The family groupings are intended to limit contamination from airborne respiratory droplets. The tricky thing about the coronavirus is that experts believe it can be spread to others for up to 14 days by someone who is infected, even if they show no outward symptoms. The CDC also recommends preventive actions like frequent hand washing and/or using germ-neutralizing hand sanitizer.

The seniors will face the train tracks rather than the home bleachers, their seats spaced out on the turf rather than the typical shoulder-to-shoulder seating alignment. Each senior will be provided with one of the protective facemasks being manufactured by Renfro Corporation. The loose-fitting masks are designed to create a physical barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer from potential contaminants in the immediate environment.

The event will be livestreamed on the FPTV web page at https://www.fpcsk12.com/ (FTC Channel 5) for those who cannot attend in person. The start time was pushed back to 8 p.m. in order to have sufficient darkness for the video to be visible projected onto the screen above the band booster concession stand.

Cunningham emphasized that no one is required to attend the event if they remain concerned about community spread of the coronavirus. Any seniors who skip it will have their diplomas mailed to them.

“If you feel like you don’t need to attend, the senior will graduate regardless,” he said.

Those belonging in groups at higher risk for complications from COVID-19 (such as senior citizens or people of any age with chronic conditions like diabetes) are discouraged from attending. Cunningham also said siblings of graduates below age 10 should probably not attend either.

Typically, parents tend to cluster together in a tight grouping at the bottom of the home side bleachers, eager to get a closer-up photograph of their child walking across the stage and being handed their diploma. No parents will be allowed onto the field to do this. Parents can pre-order a professional photo of the moment taken by Bill Miller Photography, the company sanctioned to do the official senior formals, and have it shipped to them after the event.

At the conclusion of the graduation ceremony, visitors will be directed to exit the stadium in an orderly manner as family units in order to accommodate social distancing regulations.

FPHS Principal Brian Jett has messaged seniors about various schedules and procedures that must take place before graduation night. The students are required to turn in their Chromebook computers and pay outstanding fees that are due before they can formally complete their high school experience.

At Thursday’s Fort Payne school board meeting, Cunningham said students in earlier grades will be keeping their iPads and Chromebooks over the summer with activities provided to prevent summer slack in academic readiness for the fall. This will also put the system in a position to be prepared if there is another disease outbreak requiring the resumption of virtual instruction. Everyone hopes that isn’t necessary.

May 21 is the final day for all students, with a teacher in-service required on May 22.

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