WHEN: Friday, 9 a.m., for Crestwood and Lakewood graduates;
Saturday, 9 a.m., for Sumter graduates
WHERE: American Legion Fairgrounds, 700 W. Liberty St., Sumter
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Thanks to a grassroots effort on the part of numerous community members, many Sumter School District seniors will have an actual in-person graduation ceremony after all.
Stacy Garcia, lead organizer for the "Sumter Seniors Deserve Better" group, spoke Tuesday to The Sumter Item about two socially distanced commencement ceremonies planned for Friday and Saturday at the Sumter American Legion Fairgrounds on Liberty Street.
Those ceremonies - set for Friday at 9 a.m. for Crestwood and Lakewood high schools' graduating seniors and Saturday at 9 a.m. for the larger Sumter High graduating class- are at the same time as two of three schools' scheduled virtual ceremonies by district administration.
On May 11, Sumter School District Superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox said in a letter to district stakeholders that virtual graduation ceremonies would replace traditional in-person events this month, given the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing guidelines.
Her decision set off planned peaceful protests on May 4 and May 11 by graduating seniors from the three schools outside the district office, at 1345 Wilson Hall Road. Some parents and community members also expressed support for still holding in-person ceremonies for the Class of 2020.
The next day, May 12, the district released an update that it would add pre-recorded video footage of students in their caps and gowns crossing the stage in their high school auditorium to the virtual graduation ceremonies streamed online. Those video segments, along with remarks from presenters - including the valedictorian, salutatorian and senior class president - were filmed last week at each high school for the district's online broadcasts Friday and Saturday on its YouTube page, Facebook page and district website. FTC will also broadcast the virtual ceremonies on FTC Now Channel 26, according to district administration.
In addition to the three high schools, the district will also have virtual commencement ceremonies for the district's adult education program and career and technology center program.
VOLUNTEER GROUP'S IN-PERSON COMMENCEMENTS
A parent of a Sumter High graduating senior, Stacy Garcia said she initially wanted to plan the in-person, socially distanced ceremonies so her son, Jarron, could still have a traditional gap-and-gown graduation ceremony.
However, at the student protests in May, a large number of seniors, Garcia said, told her they were in support of her idea and would like to participate in such an event.
Garcia then started an online fundraiser, "Help Sumter Seniors Walk," on gofundme.com that had raised $3,000 as of Tuesday, including a $1,000 donation from Sumter native and country music singer/songwriter Lee Brice, according to Garcia and the website.
The funds have been used to order and rent various supplies for the two ceremonies, including 400 chairs, she said.
About 40 volunteers are assisting Garcia in the "Sumter Seniors Deserve Better" group, she said. Several local groups have made donations for the two ceremonies. Sumter American Legion Post 15 donated the free use of its fairgrounds property for the ceremonies, Garcia said.
Others donating services include Seaco Music, a photographer to take graduates' pictures and Aegis Protective Solutions, among others.
Two security guards from Aegis will be on hand both days to provide security, she added.
Most other coordination efforts, including maintaining social distancing, will be handled by the team of volunteers. Only two guests are allowed into each ceremony for each graduating senior.
Garcia said it has taken a little more than three weeks to organize the in-person commencement ceremonies, but all activities follow the state Department of Education's graduation guidelines handed down from State Superintendent Molly Spearman earlier this spring.
Face coverings will be required to be worn by each graduate and guests at the events. As graduates' names are called and they cross a two-foot-high stage setup, graduates can temporarily remove their masks for a graduation photo. Hand sanitizer will also be available at the event, Garcia said.
When asked why the group's in-person graduation services were scheduled for the same time as Crestwood and Sumter's virtual ceremonies put on by the district, Garcia said, the effort wasn't retaliatory in any way. Instead, it was to maintain consistency and normalcy for families and relatives who may have already scheduled travel plans for the graduations.
In fact, in conversations with graduating seniors, Garcia said, she encouraged seniors to take part in both the virtual ceremonies pre-recorded last week by the district and the volunteer group's in-person ceremonies. Her son, Jarron, is participating in both, she said.
As of Tuesday afternoon, a total of about 170 Crestwood and Lakewood graduating seniors - or 36% - had signed up online to participate on Friday morning in the combined ceremony at the fairgrounds, according to Garcia. The two high schools' combined total of graduating seniors is 477, according to the district.
About 150 of Sumter High's 478 seniors- or 31% - had signed up for Saturday morning's in-person ceremony as of Tuesday.
Garcia said graduating seniors can still sign up through Thursday to participate in the in-person ceremonies at the fairgrounds, via the group's Facebook page, Sumter Seniors Deserve Better.
Aegis Protective Solutions will broadcast both in-person commencement services on Facebook Live on Friday and Saturday, Garcia added. Aegis' website is aegisprotectivesolutions.com.
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