Polk County Public Schools conducted its first pandemic-era commencement ceremony on Saturday, with nearly 400 Lake Gibson High School graduates receiving their diplomas on a rainy morning at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland.
“This was a wonderful day for Polk County Public Schools,” said Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd.
“Yes, it was rainy. Yes, a pandemic forced us to move graduations outside and wear masks. We didn’t give up even in the face of all the many obstacles along the way. Our graduates deserved a celebration of their accomplishments, and that’s what we gave them. Today will live in the memories of our graduates forever, and when they look back, I hope that’s what they remember: to never, ever give up, no matter how difficult things become.”
Under the grey skies, Valedictorian Kenneth Caraballo addressed his classmates.
“These past few months have taught us all something. Adversity arises during the most unexpected and difficult times, and there is nothing we can do to change that reality,” he said. “However, it is good to know that out of adversity arises opportunity. We as students have the power to make absolutely anything of ourselves. No single person — or pandemic — can take that away from us.”
Added Salutatorian Sophia Tassos Castrillon:
“We must look for humanity in others, even in times of great division. There should be no outsider.”
The coronavirus pandemic cancelled the school district’s traditional graduation ceremonies. Working together with the City of Lakeland, Detroit Tigers and Florida Department of Health in Polk County, PCPS relocated its graduations to Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, where the amount of seating allows for social distancing. Other required health precautions include the wearing of masks, temperature checks of all in attendance, and disinfection of seats after each ceremony.
LGHS family members watched proudly from the stands on Saturday.
“It means the world,” said Eric Sandoval, who came to cheer for his granddaughter, Arianna Farrulla. “She’s graduating with honors, which is a huge accomplishment. We’re so proud of her, she’s worked hard.”
Antwann McMillan never got to experience graduation himself. But on Saturday, he was there to share the moment with his daughter, Abrionna.
“To see my daughter graduate with highest honors is very important to me,” McMillan said. “She’s doing everything I never dreamed of. She’s amazing.”
PCPS will continue its graduation season with ceremonies for Fort Meade Middle-Senior, Frostproof Middle-Senior, Polk Grad Academy and Polk Virtual on Monday, June 8.
A complete graduation schedule and list of safety precautions being taken for the ceremonies is available at polkschoolsfl.com/graduation.