JACKSONVILLE, Fla — Duval County Public Schools will host outdoor commencement ceremonies for the second consecutive year. The ceremonies will take place on school football fields for class of 2021 graduates. The move provides some certainty during a largely uncertain school year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
School officials say making the call now gives the district time to prepare for safe, social-distanced ceremonies compared to last school year, when the pandemic prompted mass rescheduling.
When the COVID-19 pandemic originally struck, Duval Schools was forced to close schools in March — it would be the last time the class of 2020 would all be on campus together, with events like prom and graduation hanging in the balance for seniors.
Ultimately, the district ending up hosting commencement ceremonies — mostly on each respective school's football field (with some exceptions) — throughout the month of July, about two months later than usual.
This year, the district is opting to host on-campus outdoor ceremonies again, instead of attempting to use traditional options including indoor stadiums and arenas that came with associated rental fees, but during a more traditional timeframe between late May and early June. The move to use school fields will save the district more than $100,000 records show.
Between graduation ceremonies in 2018 through 2020, ceremonies cost the district an average of $261,091. This year, the district estimates its ceremonies will cost a maximum total of $188,000.
The district is contracting PRI Productions — which it has used for past graduation ceremonies — for the associated costs, including stage, audio and video production rentals, tables, tents, decorations, power and labor.
According to the district, the following schools' graduation ceremonies will take place at high school football stadiums:
- Stanton College Preparatory
- Paxon School for Advanced Studies
- Baldwin Middle Senior High
- Jean Ribault High
- Atlantic Coast High
- Edward White High
- Sandalwood High
- Mandarin High
- William M. Raines High
- Terry Parker High
- First Coast High
- Englewood High
- Westside High
- Samuel W. Wolfson High
- Duncan U. Fletcher High
- The Bridge to Success Academy (at Westside High)
- Marine Science Center (at Fletcher High)
- Duval Virtual Instructional Academy (at Wolfson High)
Separate contracts will be negotiated for ceremonies at the following schools, which lack campus football stadiums:
- Andrew Jackson High
- A. Philip Randolph Academies of Technology
- Douglas Anderson School of the Arts
- Darnell Cookman School of the Medical Arts
- Frank H. Peterson Academies of Technology
It's not immediately clear where ceremonies will be hosted for schools that lack football fields. Last school year, the remaining schools' ceremonies took place at TIAA Bank Field.
One welcome change this year versus last year's outdoor ceremonies are the timeframes.
"I hope the ceremonies are not in the morning because it got very hot," Ribault High School Senior Class President Winston Seabrooks said. "I hope the school board considers evening ceremonies instead."
And they did.
This year, all of the graduation ceremonies will take place at 6 p.m. except for The Bridge to Success Academy, the Marine Science Center and the Duval Virtual Instruction Academy ceremonies, which will take place at 9 a.m. Those three schools have significantly smaller senior classes sizes, meaning the ceremonies in turn will be much shorter.
Last school year, the vast majority of ceremonies started at 9 a.m. with a handful at 11 a.m., 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. School board members encouraged each other and families to bring umbrellas to hide from the sun and students were handed water bottles to keep under their chairs to help combat the summer heat.
Still, even with adjustments in place, Seabrooks just says he's glad to have a ceremony to look forward to.
"It's a very important thing to me. Someone once told me, the feeling of walking across the stage in high school is going to be a different feeling from when you do it in college. I want to experience both," he said. "An outside ceremony isn't that bad. This is the new normal for Duval County Public Schools."
Seabrooks says socially distancing and outdoor events are something his senior class is already accustomed to, anyway.
"At Ribault, our student council has a COVID-19 adviser, a doctor, to make sure that whatever we're planning, we are keeping people healthy and safe," he said. "[An outdoor ceremony] is just another step toward that. We have to have a ceremony."