Full Riverwood grad 1 group

Members of Riverwood's class of 2018 toss their caps into the air to celebrate graduation.

With Gov. Brian Kemp issuing a statewide shelter-in-place order to prevent the coronavirus (COVID-19) from spreading and keeping all schools closed through the end of the year, Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney said he’s disappointed his district and all the others across the state won’t have regular graduation ceremonies for the class of 2020 in May.

“… This is not the end. I challenge each of you to continue to learn about the world, seek knowledge and make connections with people as you begin the next chapter in your life,” Looney wrote in an April 2 letter addressed to the district’s seniors and emailed to their parents. “As the first graduating class in my tenure as the superintendent of Fulton County Schools, you will always hold a special place in my heart. I am profoundly saddened that these unprecedented circumstances have taken away opportunities to experience so many of the cherished moments associated with your senior year.

“Know that the decisions made during this extraordinary crisis were made to ensure your continued safety and well-being as well as that of your families, friends and your teachers. We have learned much and will continue to understand more about how we manage situations like this as we continue navigating through this crisis. Fortunately, despite the grim circumstances, you have continued to provide a shining light that motivates all of us to demonstrate empathy, poise and positivity in the face of adversity.”

Looney read the letter at the Fulton Board of Education’s April 2 special called meeting, which was held virtually due to health concerns over the virus.

At the meeting, which came a day after Kemp’s order was announced, all seven board members also said they were saddened the class of 2020 won’t have regular graduation ceremonies. Two board members, District 5’s Linda McCain and District 4’s Linda Bryant, said they each have a child who’s a college senior that also won’t get to participate in a traditional graduation ceremony due to the COVID-19 crisis. But the health and safety of all trumps graduation ceremonies.

“We have to be really creative and really innovative but we also have to be very careful,” Bryant said of the district’s plans for virtual or modified graduation ceremonies. “This pandemic isn’t playing. It takes no prisoners. I would like you to find a way to celebrate without putting yourselves in harm’s way. … It has to be a school-by-school event because no one plan will satisfy every school.”

Said McCain, “I just hope what we do in the next month is look to our community and our seniors ourselves to come up with some (graduation ceremony) ideas. … I’m hoping we can bring them all together one more time. It would be a tragedy if we couldn’t.”

What type of ceremony each Fulton school has will be decided in the next month, and options include a virtual one or an in-person one (as long as social distancing is adhered to), though the latter may not be likely. The district has already cancelled all reservations it had with outside venues that were scheduled to host some graduation ceremonies, so any in-person ones would have to take place on campus.

Also at the meeting, district leaders gave the board other updates on its response to the virus crisis.

Patrick Burke, the district’s chief operating officer, said 148,890 meals have been distributed to students since March 16, under a plan in which Fulton handed them out from six schools the first week and then 21 schools the second and third weeks.

During spring break (April 6 through 10), when the district won’t offer meals, it is partnering with faith-based organizations to provide food to students at 10 locations April 9, he said.

Looney said the district’s supply of devices being given to students who need them during the virus crisis, when all students are taking classes from home, is getting low. Though the district is giving them only to students who don’t have a computer at home and Looney authorized the district to get 3,000 more laptops in March, that still may not be enough.

“I expect a surge coming up. Supply is extremely limited right now,” Looney said, earlier adding there are only 525 available for middle-schoolers.

Later he said wifi and Internet connectivity is an issue for some students in neighborhoods where service is spotty.

Ron Wade, the district’s chief talent officer, said it continues to interview candidates for job openings, including 157 elementary school vacancies, but has adjusted on that strategy due to COVID-19.

“All of our physical, face-to-face recruiting efforts have been cancelled, and all of them are now virtual. … We really want to make sure we’re not missing a beat with this,” he said.

The board voted 7-0 to approve revising the budget calendar since the virus crisis likely will mean some tax revenues won’t come in as expected due to temporary job losses and business closures. Marvin Dereef, the district’s chief financial officer, said the budget will be approved about two weeks later than planned because of the change.

Looney said if the district must make budget or staffing cuts in the coming months, he will make them to the administrative office first.

“I don’t foresee any school-based positions will be at risk,” he said. “The board and I will do everything possible to keep teachers employed.”

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