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Graduation Ceremonies for Seniors, Just Not Sure When

vix school board meeting
Members of the Vicksburg School Board and staff listen in on a Zoom meeting in April. Screenshot by Rudy Callen.

By Bob Ball

The Vicksburg school district, its buildings closed as staff and students finish the year online, will end instruction as originally scheduled June 12, Superintendent Keevin O’Neill told trustees at the April school board meeting.

Seniors will also end their year as scheduled, the week of May 18-22, without a traditional graduation ceremony.

A graduation observance will be streamed online, O’Neill told the board, with the real thing planned in the summer if possible.

The April school board meeting ordinarily honors the top 10 graduating seniors and their parents. The top four may invite an educator significant in their school years. That’s been postponed to May, but with a difference. District staff had planned on creating a video of the 10 students. But O’Neill told the board that one of the 10 offered to produce the video. “He said, ‘I’ll handle this. We’ll make it fun.’

“It’ll be 10 times better than we can do,” O’Neill said.

The online graduation video will include traditional speeches from the superintendent, board President Virgil Knowles and the senior class valedictorian and salutatorian. It will be released on a specific date for families to view. “Then I hope we can have a graduation in June,” O’Neill said. “We’ve got to figure a way to honor these kids. They’re being stripped of so much!” The 2020 class includes O’Neill’s daughter.

An annual May senior honors night which includes presentation of scholarship checks will also be observed online. “We’ll get three or four vehicles together, go to the seniors’ houses, get them outside and make the presentation on video.”

The cast of the musical “Holiday Inn,” scheduled in March at the Performing Arts Center, “is determined to run,” O’Neill said. That could happen in late summer or in the fall.

Grade-point averages for grades 9-12 “will essentially freeze” as of the closing of schools in March. “If a senior wants a grade, we’ll work with them to give them a grade.” All students will advance a grade,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill acknowledged that the teaching staff can’t cover all of the normal course materials in the remaining time. “We cannot cover all that content, not even close,” he said. Instruction will focus on essentials.

The district won’t be required to make up lost days. The state has forgiven 13 days since the shutdown in March, plus snow days and another five days to develop a learning plan for the remainder of the year.

The district provides low-cost Chromebook laptops to all students who need them in classrooms. O’Neill said it’s sent 900 home to families, and internet access “hotspots” will be available where needed in the district. So will printed materials if children and parents choose them. It’s important, O’Neill said, to make sure students “have an equal opportunity to learn.” The district isn’t specifying teaching hours. “Some teachers will call them ‘office hours.’ Some will do ‘hangouts.’ It’s difficult to say they’re going to teach a live class at 8 o’clock.”

But he praised the district’s efforts. “I think this is a chance for our finest hours. I think we’re going to shine in this!”

Knowles included O’Neill in his praise of the planning. The superintendent, Curriculum Director Gail VanDaff and Asst. Superintendent Steve Goss “began thinking long-term on the first day of the shutdown.”

“We were able to start distributing material the day after it was announced,” O’Neill recalled. “We got it out to kids and set up the big Chromebook distribution the next Monday.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order closing the schools also suspended some provisions of the state’s school code and school aid act, changing legal requirements, including those dealing with attendance, curriculum, graduation requirements and calendar. The Vicksburg board in an emergency powers resolution gave O’Neill temporary powers, including those needed to adjust curriculum, calendar, employee schedules and assignments.

Coping with a pandemic and its consequences for 2020-2021 won’t be easy. State tax revenues, including those allocated for per-pupil foundation grants to all Michigan public schools, are expected to suffer.

Goss reported speculation that foundation grants may shrink by approximately $400-$900 from the 2019-2020 level. The district’s grant is at the state’s minimum, $8,111 per pupil, and was scheduled to increase to $8,337 next year. State aid to schools comes from several sources, including a six-mill statewide school property tax and earmarked portions of income, sales and use taxes.

Goss said, “I’m deeply concerned with what the budget will look like next year. People are not spending or earning. I think the state budget is going to be in rough shape.”

Meanwhile, the administration will propose an amendment to its 2019-2020 budget by June. Cost-cutting has already begun, Goss reported, including pulling the plug “on more personal refrigerators and appliances than you’d like to see were being used” since the shutdown.

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