SJO rolling with pandemic punches, 2020 graduation still possible

"The science says students can't go back to their normal routine," said Governor J.B. Pritzker on Friday before making the announcement that Illinois schools would remain closed for the remainder of the academic 2019-2020 year. Two minutes into his daily briefing, he dropped the hammer that students, especially seniors hoped would not fall. "We know there are many school districts with unique challenges and we will work with them on issues as the need arise."

With remote learning already in progress for several weeks, St. Joseph CCSD #169 superintendent Brian Brooks said the district really didn't have any major hurdles that needed to be cleared to finish out the school year.

"The challenges are now geared towards how we wrap up the school year with students and staff without having them physically in the building," he said. "Remote learning has been far from perfect, and I’m sure very frustrating at times for both students and staff."

Brooks said he is very impressed with how students and staff throughout the district has responded to the new and hopefully temporary normal. Hopefully, by the time the Class of 2021 is ready to take their first step into the hallways at St. Joseph-Ogden High School in August, the infectious danger will be minimal.

Students and teachers are looking forward to returning to the brick mortar setting. However, the return to normal could be short-lived with prominent epidemiologists and immunologists warning a second wave or resurgence is possible.

In the absence of a vaccine and immunity through exposure, countries around the world may need to continue social distancing into 2022 to prevent critical care units according to a projections in a Harvard study published in Science.

"One of the biggest challenges for our teachers is reaching every student, and then being able to motivate every student to keep pushing and moving forward academically," Brooks explained. "I, like probably everyone else, sincerely hope we don’t return to remote learning, stay at home order, or shelter in place situation again this fall, but if we were to ever have to do this in the future, yes I do think students and staff will be more prepared."

In the mean time, Brooks and his team are looking at ways the district safely provide a commencement ceremony for the Class of 2020.

There are several ideas in consideration. One is to replicate various portions of the ceremony, video those things happening while observing social distancing protocols, and then put it all together into a single production to give graduates a sense of a "true graduation ceremony."

"We want our graduates to be able to walk across the stage with their cap and gown on, and their parents/guardians be able to take a picture of that," he said. "If it means doing it one graduate at a time so that we stay within the guidelines and keep everyone safe. We hope to have details finalized and information to be pushed out over the next week or two."

Brooks said it is "absolutely heartbreaking for both the Class of 2020 and their families." The district is going to do everything it can so that SJO seniors can have the best possible experience considering the extraordinary circumstances.

That includes possibly holding graduation later in the summer.

"We are certainly not opposed to doing a traditional ceremony in the summer, and would relish that opportunity for our graduates, but we want to prepare as if that isn’t going to be allowed so that we can hopefully offer our graduates something that will be memorable for them."

Gov. Pritzker acknowledged that seniors this year will leave school in a way that they never expected, a sentiment that extends school staff and the parents of the Class 2020.

"I know you are feeling sad about missing the rituals of senior prom, senior pranks, senior nights and of course graduation," attempting connect with the emotions thousands of senior around the state listening to his address. "Hear it from me as your Governor: There is room for you to feel all those things big and small. You will get through this, too."

The Governor said this year's seniors will talk about this moment in history, remembering it for the rest of their lives. He spoke assuredly that this class of Illinois high school students would go on to do amazing things despite missing customs enjoyed by generations before them.

With group protests over the governor's shelter-in-place order starting mirror those in other states along with and a slight increase in citizens around the country disregarding social distancing protocols over the past week, the curve public health agencies are trying to flatten could rise. Sadly, that would put any plans of a live ceremony by the district in jeopardy.

Brooks admitted that "a mass gathering of 2,000 people any time this summer is probably becoming less realistic as each day goes by."

"There is nothing we can say or do that will replace what (our seniors) have lost," he said.

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