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Pictured is the science building at Cleveland High School. Both Bradley Central High School and Cleveland High School have both built new attachments to their facilities. / Photo by Jake Daniels

Cleveland (Tennessee) High School intends to honor its graduating class of 2020, but the date administrators have chosen is a subject of intense debate.

The school announced last week that it would hold separate graduation ceremonies on May 15 at Raider Arena. Students whose last names end in the letters A through J will be honored at 4 that afternoon, while the rest will be honored at 7 to ensure that there wouldn't be overcrowding in the arena, in accordance with COVID-19 guidelines.

The announcement has been met with some resistance from both the community and the senior class, with some seniors calling for one larger joint ceremony that would allow the entire class to be honored at the same time. There are some in the community that would rather the graduation be pushed back to June.

Student Government Association president Annabelle Pelley helped create a Change.org petition to ramp up the effort to get the date moved back; as of Monday afternoon it had more than 2,200 signatures.

"We know there's no easy decision," Pelley told radio station Mix 104.1 on Friday. "This is an unprecedented time and nobody really knows how to proceed; we just would love to graduate with the kids we started kindergarten with and have been in school with for 12 years.

"Everyone was disappointed by the May 15 announcement, because you could be separated from a best friend or a classmate you've been with since kindergarten, in addition to the safety concerns people have had."

There are three high schools in Cleveland, but Cleveland High is the only one in its school system. Bradley County has two high schools — Bradley Central and Walker Valley — that each have announced their graduations will be held in June.

Cleveland High Superintendent Russell Dyer told Mix 104.1 Monday morning that there are a couple of backup dates available in June and July in the event that the health department deems May 15 too soon.

"Graduation is a time we can celebrate our seniors," Dyer said. "This year's senior class has been robbed of a lot of the activities they'd normally be able to do.

"We want to do everything we can to honor them and show them the care that we have for them before they head off to college."

A suggestion on the petition is that instead of holding the ceremony in Raider Arena next week the event be moved to Benny Monroe Stadium (the football stadium), which holds 8,000 and could seat people on both sides while also remaining in compliance with the social distancing regulations.

But as of now, Dyer and Cleveland High Principal Autumn O'Bryan are still planning to hold the event on May 15 — the date it was initially set for. If it has to change, they'll be ready for that.

"We love this class. This class has been known as fun and lively, great, great kids, so we hate what's been happening," O'Bryan said. "Making a decision like this doesn't come lightly, but we feel like we didn't want to miss out on an open date for fear that there could be a closed date in June.

"We absolutely love our seniors. Nobody wanted this, the invisible enemy is a virus that has impacted so much, and our senior class has got a lot of the brunt."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com.

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