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Hillsborough parents fuming over two-person limit at graduations

Earlier this month, the Hillsborough County Superintendent announced graduation ceremonies would be held in-person.

TAMPA, Fla. — This past year has been a rollercoaster for all of us figuring out how to live through the global pandemic.

One of the most impassioned conversations along the way continues to be about students, education, and in-person learning.

While the Class of 2020 will forever go down as the year of virtual commencement ceremonies and drive-thru celebrations, the Class of 2021 is certainly facing their own challenges courtesy of the coronavirus crisis.

Earlier this month, Hillsborough County Schools superintendent, Addison Davis announced there would be in-person graduations, however, seniors would only be allowed to bring two guests each.

The announcement was immediately met with criticism from disappointed parents demanding more than two tickets. The district posted the announcement on their Facebook page which now has 130 comments.

Some parents were just happy to have in-person graduations given what happened to last year's graduates. Others want the district to make exceptions and reconsider for blended families and vaccinated grandparents.

 An online petition was created to raise the number of guests allowed at Hillsborough graduations and now has nearly 2,000 electronic signatures.

Zuliet Martinez has a daughter who is a senior at Brandon High School. She signed the petition because she said the circumstances put her 18-year-old in a difficult and stressful position. 

"Making a student pick who they want to be there, especially in a family like ours is very hard," said Martinez.  "She doesn’t want to hurt feelings because everybody wants to be there."

Her daughter ultimately chose her mother and grandmother creating tension with her father.

"She chose me and her grandmother because we are the people there her whole life," she said.

Susie Tibbs whose son is graduating from Newsome High School is disappointed that her son's grandparents can't be there, especially after a year separated from family.

"My family is fully vaccinated. I’ll be fully vaccinated before graduation," said Tibbs.

10 Tampa Bay asked if leaders with the school district would reconsider. A spokesperson responded via e-mail with the following information:

While we know each graduate wants extended family at their graduation, we worked hard to make sure the in-person option was as safe as possible with guidance from our health partners at TGH and USF Health. We have 1,500 total seats available inside the EXPO Hall with social distancing. With some of our high schools having 600+ graduates, the 2 ticket limit would need to be required for space availability. 

We looked into a variety of location options including indoor, outdoor, and school sites. Availability, cost, and weather factors played a partial role in this decision as well. While our smaller high schools have fewer graduates and would have potentially allowed for more guests, the principals requested the process to be equal across all schools. The use of high school stadiums was also considered, but the capacity of the stadiums would be limited to allow for social distancing, which would require 23 of our 28 high schools to break into two separate ceremonies to allow for four guests. Principals were not in favor of separating the Class of 2021, instead promoting class unity.

The Expo Hall is the largest indoor facility in our area that would be able to accommodate our seating needs with all safety protocols. We will have each of our graduation ceremonies available for live streaming for loved ones who will not be able to see their graduate in person.

Families in Manatee County are also pushing back. Chloe Forestier, a student, created an online petition asking for four tickets for graduation.

Many school districts in Tampa Bay are still finalizing their graduation plans. 

Pasco and Polk County schools previously announced in-person graduation ceremonies this year. Both districts are allowing four guests.

The Pinellas County Schools website says:

Pinellas County Schools is currently planning for traditional graduation ceremonies following all health and safety protocols, event guidelines and Major League Baseball schedules. Tentative dates have been set for early June, venues are reserved and we are having ongoing discussions with Department of Health officials to understand forecasts for the end of the school year. The district will announce final graduation plans in the next few weeks so that students and families can plan accordingly. Information will be posted at pcsb.org/graduation. Ceremonies will also be livestreamed on the district’s YouTube channel.

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