As you know, Governor DeSantis announced last month that public schools in Florida would remain closed to students for the remainder of this school year with instruction continuing through distance learning due to the COVID-19 outbreak. While this has presented its challenges, distance learning models have proven how amazing our faculty and staff are.

From the start, our Food and Nutrition staff have quickly adapted, moving from cafeteria lines to curbside pick-up to make sure children are fed. Each week, they serve approximately 40,000 meals, and since beginning meal distribution, they have served over 250,000 meals!

Our Highlands County teachers have also proven how quickly they can adapt, completely adjusting the instructional model to meet students’ needs. Teachers know that there is more to school than academic instruction, and they have been creative in showing their students how much they are loved and missed. Schools have used social media photos, made personal calls to students and families, as well as yard signs and neighborhood parades, to reach students where they live. I appreciate and respect our educators for the dedication they have demonstrated to their profession and the love and compassion they have shown their students.

We will now also be able to reach more students digitally. Last month, we received a shipment of over 1,000 new Chromebooks. Our MIS staff quickly unpacked and distributed these new devices to our second graders. This week we received 3,000 student Chromebooks provided by the Florida Department of Education through a joint effort with Florida’s Educational Consortia, which includes our own Heartland Educational Consortium.

Even though the school year is not quite over, we have been hard at work preparing for summer school, which will run from June 1st through June 19th. A survey was sent to second-, third-, and fourth-grade parents to determine interest in a virtual summer school for their child. Additionally, there will be a virtual summer school for secondary grades. More information about those courses will be announced soon.

The disruption of end-of-year activities and celebrations truly breaks my heart for our Senior Class of 2020. Our wish would have been to proceed with graduation as scheduled; however, safeguards to protect our community makes that impossible. Graduation is a significant event for our seniors, and I wanted to make sure that their voices were heard throughout the decision-making process. I held virtual meetings with senior student leaders, high school principals, and senior class sponsors, and a survey was sent to seniors districtwide. They overwhelmingly expressed that they wanted a formal rather than a virtual graduation – to walk across the stage, in person, to receive their due recognition for all of their hard work and accomplishments over the last 13 years. Our principals agreed, very much wanting to congratulate their seniors face-to-face.

There is still uncertainty about when we can return to normal day-to-day life, so we know that the further into summer we plan, the better the chances of restrictions being eased to allow events. Therefore, graduation for the Class of 2020 is now scheduled for late July. Sebring High School will graduate on Thursday evening, July 23rd, at the Alan Jay Arena or their football field, depending on social distancing directives from the governor for an indoor event at that time. Avon Park High will graduate on Friday evening, July 24th, at their football field. Highlands Virtual School will graduate Saturday morning, July 25th, to be tentatively held at The Circle Theatre in Sebring, and graduation for Lake Placid High School will be held Saturday evening, July 25th, at their football field. Though the commencements are delayed, principals and teachers at all three high schools are working on unique plans for recognizing their graduates on what would have been their actual graduation day in May.

The Class of 2020 is facing an unprecedented situation. They are determined to finish strong, and after hearing from so many of them, I am prouder than ever of this senior class. We will do everything in our power to make their graduation special, to acknowledge their hard work and accomplishments, and celebrate this milestone with them.

On the evening of April 23rd, the skies over our communities were illuminated in honor of the senior class when our high schools participated in a national event called the “Be the Light.” As I watched the live-streamed videos and saw the lovely comments on social media, I was genuinely touched by the overwhelming support of our seniors. Witnessing this served as a strong reminder to me of how wonderful our community is, and how supportive everyone has been through the many challenges we have faced – and for that, I sincerely thank you.

Dr. Brenda Longshore is superintendent of schools for The School Board of Highlands County.