KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A day after Knox County Schools announced plans for graduation, that would allow seniors to attend in-person, Superintendent Bob Thomas is sharing more details about the process.

In an email sent to Knox County Schools families on May 6th, Thomas shared more details about graduation ceremonies. The proposed plan is set to take place between July 27th and August 8th.

The ceremonies will be held on the football field at each high school, except for schools without a football field, which will be held at the World’s Fair Park amphitheater.

“This is not a plan that I like. At all. When this group of students started out in 9th grade, was actually my first year as superintendent. This was actually gonna be the class that had gone all the way through high school that I would be able to be on the stage with them, shake their hand. That makes it even more disappointing for me, as a staff, we’re all disappointed.”

Knox Co. Schools Supintendent Bob Thomas

The plan, as it stands now, keeps graduation ceremonies closed to families and the public. Instead, the ceremonies will be live-streamed, recorded for on-demand viewing later, and a each family will receive a recording of their ceremony.

To follow social distancing guidelines, graduates will be seated 6-8 feet apart and will walk to a stage where they will accept their diploma. They will then exit the stage directly after, in order to “discourage communal celebration”, according to the email sent to families signed by Thomas.

On Thursday, a day after that announcement, Thomas says the plan is a “worst case scenario” and is hopeful that the safety of everyone involved in the graduation ceremonies will improve ahead of July.

The date for the graduation, notably later than typically held, corresponds with Knox County’s reopening plan as set by the Knox County Health Department, county and city leaders.

“We do care about your child, they’re our children as well. We care about you as a parent,” said Thomas.

Parents turned to social media to express their concerns with the graduation plans, that would keep them from attending ceremonies in-person.

Thomas says he hears those frustrations and as a parent himself, understands the value and importance of graduation.

“We want you to have that experience if there’s anyway possible to make that happen and still be within the guidelines we’ve been given,” Thomas said.

Thomas said the “big question” for the school board is finding a venue that will allow proper social distancing for graduates and their families. He said at this point, they’re unaware of a venue that makes it possible.

He calls the situation “fluid” and “changing” noting that leadership within Knox County Schools is pushing to find a plan that would allow families to attend.

Ultimately, the final decision on what ceremonies look like for the Class of 2020 will be decided by Thomas and the school board. The Knox Co Health Department gives recommendations to follow, but cannot mandate a specific plan.

Knox County Mayor: “I am incredibly frustrated”

Another county leader getting questions about graduation plans is Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs.

Jacobs says already he’s hearing from frustrated parents who want a clear plan that, at this point, is impossible to predict due to changing guidelines related to COVID-19.

“I’m probably the most frustrated person in Knox County right now. This just adds to it, a lot of these things I feel there’s just nothing I can do. It’s just out of my hands. That, for me, is the worst part of the whole thing that I just can’t do anything about it,” said Jacobs.

What he says he can do, offer his support to Thomas and the school board to help find a solution that would allow parents and families to attend ceremonies.

“We want to work with everybody in the community to try to give their kids and their parents the best possible experience,” said Jacobs.

Knox Co. Schools is following reccomendations from the county health department, but also, the Tennessee Department of Education.

The TN Dept. of Education gives districts multiple options for in-person graduation ceremonies that follow social distancing guidelines.

  • Football Stadiums or Larger Arenas: This would include limiting guests to accommodate total capacity,seating families in every three rows in the stadium, and seating graduates 6-feet apart.
  • Multiple ceremonies may also be considered. Weather should be a factor in this decision.• 
  • Drive-ins or Similar : Families may arrive, and remain seated in cars, which allows for minimal physical engagement. This can be done at drive-ins, large parking lots (like malls), or similar.
  • Increase the Number and Decrease the Size: Instead of hosting one ceremony, host a series of smaller ceremonies in the same venue.
  • Individualized Ceremony : Schedule students to arrive in waves that allows them to walk in front of the school and families to walk on the sidewalk or drive-by in cars to take pictures.

These options, according to Thomas, have been reviewed by the Knox County School Board ahead of the May 6th announcement.

“At this point I think everything is on the table. So that might be the working draft. I think it’s fair to say that’s going to go back to the drawing board and figure out something that will allow parents to be there,” said Jacobs.

Parents are cautioned to remain patient, according to Thomas and Jacobs, as graduation plans are subject to change.

Part of those conversations moving forward, according to Thomas, is finding a venue that would allow for the necessary health and safety guidelines.

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