These seniors from Florida will cross the finish line to high school in style: with a graduation lap at the home of the Daytona 500.
The coronavirus pandemic has spoiled graduation plans for many families across the country, but for seniors at two Florida schools, missing out on walking across a stage to receive their diplomas means they'll be crossing high school’s finish line in style: with a lap at the home of the Daytona 500.
The idea came to Daytona International Speedway President Chip Wile one night in a dream.
“The next morning I started talking to some of my teammates about the possibility” of hundreds of high school seniors and their families graduating at the speedway, he told the Daytona Beach News-Journal.
Turns out it's very possible. Students from Flagler Palm Coast and Matanzas high schools – who would have been facing postponement or cancellation of their graduation plans at a Daytona Beach convention center because of social distancing concerns – accepted the speedway's offer and will hold their ceremonies May 31.
Each graduate's family will be allowed one car, and everyone must stay inside their vehicle. They’ll line up, drive over the finish line to accept their diploma and take a victory lap. The ceremony will be simulcast via radio inside the facility and live-streamed on the FlaglerSchools.com website.
In April, the Flagler County school district formed a committee of students, faculty and district officials to figure out an alternative to graduation plans. Hunter Perez, a senior at Matanzas and representative on the committee, said they always knew a virtual ceremony, like the kind many school districts have been forced to, would be a last resort.
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“In our little town of Flagler, community is everything,” he said. “We couldn’t bear the thought of not at least being in the same vicinity as each other.”
So when the speedway reached out with an offer to host graduations at the track at no cost to the district, the committee’s choice was a little easier.
Perez said he was fielding messages from classmates all day after Friday's announcement.
“There’s always gonna be some concerns, some questions. But every single person so far has said, ‘But what’s the alternative?’” he said. “They’re so grateful that we’re doing something where it’s not just virtual, where we’re in our rooms feeling lonely.”
Wile said the speedway is happy to help provide that experience for students.
“We’re going to be able to make a memory for all of these seniors who are being robbed of this rite of passage,” he said.
During the pandemic, the speedway has also been a site for drive-thru coronavirus testing and food distribution. Wile also said he’s heard of other tracks around the country offering a similar chance to seniors.
The school district in Volusia County, which includes Daytona Beach, opted to reschedule graduations in July, although it’s still waiting to see if the usual end-of-May ceremonies will be possible.
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced last week the first phase of a plan to reopen the state, but it requires schools remain closed and social distancing continue. His plans did not include information about when the state will move to the next phase or what that would look like.
Perez said even with the stress of changes brought on by the pandemic, he’s excited to be close to his friends again. And he’s grateful to be able to do something a little different.
“This is something we’re gonna remember forever,” he said. “This is one for the history books.”
Follow Cassidy Alexander on Twitter: @bycassidy
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