Wednesday is the final day of school for Cobb County students, and Friday will be the final day for students of Marietta City Schools.

In this unprecedented time and with the last two months of the year having been 100% online, the superintendents of the county’s two school districts offered to the MDJ their messages to graduating seniors and to their school communities as a whole. Cobb seniors from 17 high schools would have taken the stage to receive their diplomas beginning Tuesday and running through Saturday. Marietta High School’s commencement would have been this Saturday.

Cobb schools Superintendent Chris Ragsdale

Ragsdale first issued his condolences to the thousands of graduating seniors who, for the first time in a lifetime, will not be able to walk the stage for graduation ceremonies this month.

He said “perseverance” has been the operative term to describe all the school district’s students, and especially its seniors, who he said have taken cancellation of many once-in-a-lifetime events, including prom, award ceremonies, concerts and other performances in stride.

“To have a group of seniors that have worked so hard to get to where they are miss out on those things is really sad,” Ragsdale said.

The superintendent noted that individual schools have celebrated their seniors in unique ways, including by waving signs and pompoms during recent drive-thru handouts of regalia, sign postings in yards and makeshift vehicle parades.

“I applaud everyone for everything they have done,” he said.

Ragsdale said the school district is still hoping to be able to host in-person graduation ceremonies for its seniors, but can’t give a specific timeline, given the continuing uncertainty and ever-changing guidance from state and federal health officials.

Next, Ragsdale turned to the district’s teachers, who he said went home on March 13 and in a single weekend had to transition to fully online instruction, a feat he said shows the strength of Cobb educators.

“If you ever thought you would make that switch, that’s certainly not the way that would implement it,” he said. “I can’t say enough about how proud I am of our teachers to have made that transition and to maintain the high level of teaching and learning that we have.”

Noting the uncertainty that continues to grip local school districts and schools across the nation in terms of whether school will be able to return to session in the fall, Ragsdale again pointed younger students to the example of the district’s seniors for comfort. He said the seniors have endured something that many people haven’t seen in their lifetimes and are entering an uncertain world with grace.

“All of our students have experienced the same uncertainty and change and lives being totally disrupted and turned into chaos, but I think that they can look to our seniors,” he said. “They have missed so much, but yet you see example after example of the appreciation both of the seniors toward some of their teachers and the teachers for the seniors they have taught this year. It’s truly an example of, ‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.’”

And to the greater Cobb community, Ragsdale said in times of crisis throughout history — the Great Depression, World War II or 9/11 — the nation and its communities have come together. This time will be no different, he said.

“This has made the country come together, and in a time of such divisiveness, maybe that is the silver lining.”

Marietta schools Superintendent Grant Rivera

Rivera said the last two months of virtual instruction have been bittersweet.

“In some ways, my heart has been heavy. You walk these hallways of the schools, and the staff aren’t there and the kids aren’t there. The life that is a school building isn’t the same,” he said. “You see kids that are learning at home and experiencing financial hardships or health challenges ... and my heart has been heavy because the reality and burden of this situation is not lost on me at all.”

Yet, Rivera said, “I have such incredible hope.”

The Marietta superintendent said the silver lining in an era dominated by COVID-19 news has been the resilience that Marietta has shown in “every corner” of the community.

He said teachers have pushed through balancing their own personal lives with their efforts to keep students connected and learning, efforts that he said led to 93% of students logging in to learn over the last 10 weeks.

But the teachers didn’t stop there, he said. Many have gone so far as to deliver meals, computers or Wi-Fi hot spots to students who need them.

Rivera said the school district has continued to celebrate its students as best it can with, among other measures, virtual award ceremonies, decoration of buses used to deliver meals to families and a week of senior events and recognitions, including the “Gem City Celebration” on Wednesday

That celebration encourages Marietta families and businesses to decorate their mailboxes or marquees in honor of the graduating Blue Devils. Also starting Wednesday, the Marietta High campus will be covered in signs depicting the faces of around 540 seniors as a salute to the class of 2020.

The district has also scheduled an in-person graduation ceremony to be held at Northcutt Stadium in Marietta on July 24. Rivera said the commitment to hold an in-person ceremony for Marietta High School graduates is one steeped in tradition and with consideration for extended families who want to be there for their graduates.

Finally, Rivera praised Marietta families, who he said have transitioned to teaching their children at home for two months, balancing work and making sacrifices to make sure their children continued with their education.

The resilience of the city, the schools and its families, he said, will outlast the COVID-19 virus and its impacts.

“I would argue, in the history of public education, there’s never been a moment in time where families were so engaged in their child’s learning,” he said, adding that Marietta’s students have also been incredibly committed. “They’ve done what’s been asked of them, they’ve done it to the best of their ability, and I think while I will tell you it’s not the same right now, the light is brighter and the hope is stronger than it’s ever been before because we’ve seen people come forward in ways that we never would have thought was possible.”

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Follow Thomas Hartwell on Twitter at twitter.com/MDJThomas.

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