Vaeda Sumey used the money she earned working at her local grocery store during the school year to buy her cap and gown. She keeps it hung in her room, unsure when, if ever, she will wear it to walk across the stage to graduate in front of family and friends.
Like many 2020 graduates, Sumey will not experience a traditional graduation ceremony. In North Carolina, a May 20 executive order by Gov. Roy Cooper limited all outside gatherings to just 25 people — much less than the number of guests at a typical graduation ceremony.
A senior at Cedar Ridge High School, Sumey is the first in her immediate family to graduate from high school. Her cousin, Chelsey Fairbrother, planned to travel from her home in New York to watch Sumey walk across the stage. Instead, last week Sumey signed a petition protesting modified “drive-thru” graduation ceremonies at two Orange County high schools: Cedar Ridge and Orange.
“They're seniors — they work really, really hard,” Fairbrother said. "It's really hard for them — they didn't get prom, they didn't get their last year in senior sports, they had a lot of things kind of stripped away from them because of everything that's going on. She's more so come to terms with it, that if that's how it has to go, then it's just how it is. But it's still heartbreaking.”
The petition, titled “Drive-Throughs are for BigMacs, not diplomas” was created by Cedar Ridge students two weeks ago, following the announcement that graduations at Cedar Ridge and Orange High School would have drive-in ceremonies for students.
“The pandemic has taken away things like prom, senior days, last days of school, signing yearbooks, spring sports, senior nights and other countless activities celebrating our accomplishments (we took it like champs and knew it was necessary),” the petition states.
The petition proposes graduation be postponed until a traditional ceremony can be held outdoors with necessary safety precautions.
"We have watched each other grow up and become young adults, and it would be a shame to move on from our childhood without proper closure. We want to celebrate, and say goodbye safely together. We wish you all well, and stay safe during this historical time," the petition states. "Drive-thrus are for getting BigMacs, not diplomas."
At the time of publication, the petition had almost 900 signatures.
Cedar Ridge Principal Carlos Ramirez said he was proud of the students who created the petition. He said they articulated their argument well, and they’re right to feel disappointed.
“I can't blame them for feeling the way they do,” he said. “Their senior year has been stolen from them — everything, within 24 hours it was all gone.”
Still, Ramirez said plans to hold a drive-in graduation still stand. He said the decision was reached following deliberation by the school’s graduation committee, which consists of teachers, parents and students.
Originally, Ramirez said the committee opted for a socially distanced traditional ceremony. That plan was rejected by county officials for not passing safety tests. The details of the drive-in ceremony will be released once the plan is approved by county officials, he said.
“I'm happy that we're able to plan something for our students, something that will be memorable and hopefully exciting," Ramirez said. "The reality is we have to work within the limits of the executive orders."
Other Orange County high schools are also planning drive-in graduations, according to a document shared by Jeff Nash, executive director of community relations for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.
Phoenix Academy High and East Chapel Hill High both plan to have variations of drive-in ceremonies, according to the document, although East Chapel Hill High plans to allow students to walk across a stage to receive their diplomas.
At Carrboro High, students will walk across the stage with their guests and staff will cheer them on in a “wide gauntlet” as they exit the gymnasium. Students at Chapel Hill High will walk through the A-building of the school, to be demolished this summer. Once they reach the lobby of that building, their names will be called, and they will grab their diplomas from off of a table, the document states.
Phoenix Academy High’s commencement is to take place June 6. The other three ceremonies are scheduled for June 13.
Melany Stowe, public information and community engagement officer for Orange County Schools, said in an email that all Orange County schools, including Orange High and Cedar Ridge High, have plans for graduation that they’ve shared with representatives from the health department and emergency services for guidance and approval.
“It is really important for us to provide graduation details once our partners (health department, emergency services and law enforcement) have informed us that they do meet the state and local guidelines,” she said in the email. “We are grateful to have partners assist us with the best means of staying safe and honoring our graduates.”
Some community members think school administrators should postpone ceremonies so that a more traditional graduation could be held later in the summer.
Jon Franklin, who works as a public announcer at Cedar Ridge sporting events, said he signed the petition after seeing it on Facebook.
“I think a lot of school systems are kind of rushing or feeding in to the hysteria by just having these drive-in, drive-by commencement ceremonies when this is something that's never happened before,” Franklin said. “It's a cheap way out and these kids are so much better than that.”
Fairbrother said she agrees the ceremony should be postponed, but she said she knows the process to make a decision right now must be difficult.
“Everything is so unknown at the moment, and it's nobody's fault, obviously,” she said.
Ramirez said he is working with the graduation committee to find additional ways to celebrate seniors, such as a parade through downtown Hillsborough. He said working to follow guidelines while pleasing people on all sides of the discussion regarding COVID-19 is a challenge.
“We feel terrible that we're not able to do what the students would like — whatever the original stadium plans were,” Ramirez said. “All of this has been challenging for every administrator, because the reality is, we can't go back to normal. We still feel bad about it, but what can we do?”
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