Crowds Are Gathering In Alabama For Graduation Ceremonies Despite Risk Of Virus

The state lifted the ban on mass gatherings on May 11, which allowed seniors to walk the stage while staying six feet apart.

Twitter/ Phenix City Schools

While virtual ceremonies and commencement speeches for graduating students have been held due to the risk of spreading coronavirus, high schools in Alabama are holding in-person graduation ceremonies in outdoor venues that can hold thousands of people. 

Thousands of graduates and their supporters are invited to gather at a stadium in Hoover, Alabama, with nearly 11,000 seats on Wednesday and Thursday — which has drawn protests from students and alumni, some of whom have signed a petition with more than 1,300 signatures asking for a virtual ceremony. 

Kathy Murphy, the city school superintendent at Hoover City Schools, said the events will comply with social distancing rules. 

“All of our students will be celebrated, even those who choose not to come, and we understand that. But we will call their names, their names will appear on the large Jumbotron,” Murphy said in a video about the ceremony.

Across the state, other in-person gatherings have been held this week since the state lifted its restriction on gatherings with more than 10 people on May 11.

More than 500 seniors were set to graduate from Thompson High School in Alabaster, but it’s unclear how many actually showed up to walk the stage during Tuesday night’s ceremony in the school’s massive football stadium. Seniors that did come were placed six feet apart on the field, and received their diplomas without any handshakes. The school only allowed the stadium to fill up to half capacity, according to WVTM. 

Seniors from all five high schools in Morgan County walked the ceremonial stage without masks and shook a school official’s hand on Monday. The graduation ceremonies took place at each of the schools’ individual football fields where students were placed six feet apart and allowed six guests, WAFF reported

To the east of the state, Phenix City School District held five separate graduation ceremonies for 420 seniors starting May 11. Students were also placed six feet apart, but the traditional handshake with the principal did not happen. 

Outside of Birmingham, Homewood High School started the first of five ceremonies this week by allowing only one senior to enter and cross the stage in an auditorium with family members looking on. Vestavia Hills held a graduation ceremony on Tuesday night with social distancing protocols, but gave its seniors the option to have individual ceremonies on Wednesday or Thursday.

Alabama’s state government has maintained that while gatherings are now allowed, people must stay six feet apart unless they’re from the same household. The state’s stay-at-home restrictions—which closed down businesses, retail stores, beaches, schools, bars and restaurants— expired on April 30. 

The amended safer-at-home guidelines also include restaurants and bars operating with limited table seating, reopening athletic facilities and gyms with social distancing and sanitation rules, as well as barber shops, hair salons, and tattoo parlors.  

In lieu of the in-person tradition, many high schools and colleges have opted for virtual ceremonies, while a host of celebrities have given their best to graduating seniors. Former President Barack Obama gave a virtual commencement speech over the weekend to honor graduating seniors in high school, with plans to speak virtually again on June 6 with Michelle Obama.