Graduation still on, says principal

OKEECHOBEE — With the caveat that it is impossible to predict how the COVID-19 crisis will look in the near future, Okeechobee High School Principal Lauren Myers says the May 29 graduation date hasn’t changed yet.

“Graduation is a milestone for all students; it is either the first major step in obtaining a professional degree or it serves to represent the culmination of an educational career before entering the work force or military,” explained Mrs. Myers. “The Okeechobee County School District and Okeechobee High School believe it is an important event for all students and their families. As of right now, the May 29 date has not changed. We cannot predict what the future will bring, but we are committed to providing the Class of 2020 a graduation ceremony to celebrate their efforts and accomplishments.”

On April 7, the Palm Beach County School District announced that it was canceling its planned graduation ceremonies at the fairgrounds in response to COVID-19.

COVID-19 has completely turned the 2020 school year on its head. Suddenly, teachers and school district employees all across the state had to prepare to operate exclusively online.

“Those of us in the field of education were not alone in this transition,” said Mrs. Myers of the unexpected changes thrust on the school system. “We all have had to rethink basic functions of living. The manner in which we greet one another, shop, worship and, yes, ‘go to school’ looks and feels different. In a matter of days, all types of business models were finding solutions and work-arounds to ensure that their clientele would not do without.”

“I truly believe that the leadership within the Okeechobee County School District was among the first to initiate a plan for the inevitable change,” continued Mrs. Myers. “The high school was probably the most equipped ahead of the announcement. Upon enrollment all of our students are issued a personal Chromebook that they are able to transport to and from school. We were lucky in that we did not have to coordinate device distribution to the largest population of students in the district.”

With a majority of high school students already having access to Chromebooks throughout the year, many of the teachers at OHS had utilized online learning platforms before this crisis, meaning most of the students at OHS were familiar with some form of digital content and the basics of submitting work in a virtual format.

“The magic of learning is rooted in the relationship that is formed between the teacher and student,” Mrs. Myers pointed out. “Our teachers are trying to navigate their personal lives through this crisis, while working to sustain the connections that will ensure their students’ success. Classroom engagement is dependent upon feedback, and this looks very different in a distance learning structure. Right now we are working to transition between caring for immediate basic needs to implementing meaningful instruction.”

One of the most difficult factors in this crisis is the uncertainty. Originally schools were only going to be closed or an extra week after spring break. Then that was extended throughout the month of April.

In a press conference on April 9, Gov. Ron DeSantis relayed that he was receptive to the idea of Florida kids returning to schools, even if it was only for a month.

One concern as schools moved online were students who had no reliable internet access at home.

“The bulk of the work for all of us during this initial phase has been spent in an effort to make contact with all students to determine their needs and internet status,” Mrs. Myers explained. “Even with the amazing efforts of the area businesses and cellphone carriers opening up free WiFi and hot spots, there are still pockets of students who do not have access to the internet. Our staff has been burning up the phones to identify these individuals. We are working with teachers and parents to provide them subject- and grade level-specific paper based materials so that all students are able to continue their education.”

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