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Fort Smith Public Schools Shares Graduation Plan Update

Northside and Southside Classes of 2020,

It’s safe to say that 2020 has been a rollercoaster year. March, April and May have passed as a blur as we have worked to develop solutions to new challenges courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic. The challenge of developing great plans for safe graduation ceremonies continues to be at the top of our priority list. Today, we want to update you on this planning in light of current circumstances.  

On March 23, we shared that graduation might be postponed because of the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) and the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings. We sent you a link to a Graduation survey by text message on March 25, and those of you who responded told us that you would really prefer to participate in some kind of traditional graduation ceremony. You noted specifically that you did not want to have a virtual graduation ceremony.  

On April 10, we gave you potential dates for a traditional graduation experience. We hoped, at that time, that we would be celebrating with you on the football stadiums or at alternate locations like the Fort Smith Convention Centeron on June 29 and 30.  We also reserved July 6 and 7 just in case we needed to move ceremony dates again.  

On May 7, guidance from DESE and ADH made it clear that the district would not be able to host any form of traditional ceremony before July 1. We cancelled the June dates and moved forward with plans for the July 6 and 7 graduation option. 

On June 15, we sent a second Graduation survey by text message to understand how many of you plan to participate in the late graduation ceremonies. 77% of Southside respondents and 80% of Northside respondents said they will participate in graduation ceremonies regardless of time, location and order of ceremony. 

With the July dates set, your principals, Dr. Rathbun and Dr. Miller, and Dr. Ginni McDonald, FSPS Director of Secondary Education, have been working on a number of options. The message we sent you last week outlined some of the difficulties with on-field graduation ceremonies. 

Stadium capacity is limited to 66 percent. There are also specific distance requirements that further limit the number of people who can be on the field and in stadiums to approximately 30 percent capacity. July heat is a major factor. Masks are required. Emergency vehicles do not have adequate access on and off the fields and parking is severely limited because of the construction projects at each school. Provisions for shuttle buses to the high schools are limited by mandates to clean the vehicles after each one-way trip. 

Considering all of these factors, graduation ceremonies at the Convention Center may be one of the most viable options. Drs. Miller, Rathbun and McDonald are working with the Convention Center representatives to organize a beautiful and memorable event for the Northside and Southside Classes of 2020 while adhering to the strict physical distancing guidelines. 

Here are a few details regarding this proposal:

  • Graduates may sign up for a specific hour to participate in their respective ceremony. 
  • Families may accompany their graduates through the graduation line.
  • The event begins as the graduate and family enter the Convention Center at the South Rotunda. Each graduate and family member will be screened upon entry and then move as a group through the convention hallways. 
  • The graduation ceremony in progress in the North Rotunda and graduation speakers will be broadcast to televisions spaced along the hallways. 
  • Families may visit with one another as long as physical distance is maintained among the different groups. 
  • Activities for graduates and their families will be set up along the way. 
  • Once the graduate and family arrive in the North Rotunda, the family will be invited to observe as their graduate walks across the stage to receive a well-earned diploma from the principal, the superintendent and the school board. 
  • A professional photographer will be set up to capture these graduation highlights, so that families do not have to do so. 

This plan is approved by the Arkansas Department of Health and the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education for FSPS. However, the district is waiting on word of a final approval that must be submitted by the Fort Smith Convention Center. Other plans may be submitted.

On March 23, when some of our alternative plans began to take shape, projections suggested that the number of COVID-19 cases in Arkansas would have peaked. The rising number of COVID cases in Arkansas indicates a different trend. On March 23, the number of cases in Arkansas were 174. On April 10 and May 7 they were 1,094 and 3,665, respectively. Today, COVID cases in Arkansas are at 16,083, and the positivity rate continues to fluctuate. There does not appear to be a predictable end. 

July 6 and 7 are only a few days away. As a result, it appears appropriate to postpone graduations again. Another set of make-up dates can be selected once more options are examined and documented in more detail. The district has reserved July 16-17, August 10-11, and December 17-18 with the Fort Smith Convention Center for this purpose. It is also possible that FSPS could host graduation at the Convention Center sometime in July and provide a more-traditional option at the schools in the future. 

We share your frustrations. You need to graduate, and your principals need to be about the business of planning for the coming school year. We will continue to advise you as details and plans solidify. Thank you for your continued support and patience. We look forward to celebrating with you soon.