Milton Winn-Dixie gives four high school seniors a graduation they'll never forget
Even as their lives are being turned upside down as the coronavirus pandemic upends the school year, four high school seniors who work at a Milton Winn-Dixie store got to experience a bit of a "normal" senior year by having a mini graduation ceremony after the store closed Monday night.
Donning cardboard graduation caps with tassels made out of receipt paper, the four graduates — Linzie Whitworth, Makayla Penton, Angel Camacho and Jessica Stout, all Winn-Dixie employees — stood in line six feet apart by a cash register and waited their turn as their names were called over the intercom. Then, one by one, they received their diplomas — made out of advertising papers — from another co-worker.
"The associates go to Pace High School and Milton High School, and they really just kind of took it upon themselves to try and have a little fun after work," said Erik Patterson, the store's manager. "After the stores close at 8 or 9 p.m., they stay behind and perform additional cleaning tasks to make sure everything is safe, and we've got social distancing stickers on the floor and they just really decided to have a little bit of fun with it."
Santa Rosa County schools, like all public K-12 schools in the state of Florida, are teaching through remote learning until students are scheduled to physically go back to school May 1. But even that date is in flux as the state responds to changing guidelines from both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the federal government about social distancing measures meant to stop the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.
That means spring athletic events, prom and other typical end-of-senior-year activities are canceled. Santa Rosa County hasn't officially postponed or canceled graduation ceremonies, but Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick said on Tuesday that the district is planning on renting out the Pensacola Bay Center in June and July to hold graduation ceremonies. Dates for that will be finalized this week.
"I don't really get to go anywhere or contact my friends, and I feel sad, because the last semester of senior year is the busiest and most important and fund and it kind of just came to a big halt," said Whitworth, a 17-year-old senior at Pace High School. "It's kind of upsetting because ROTC, we made it to nationals and all of that is getting weird and confusing with everything."
Whitworth, who plans to join the Air Force as soon as she can, said she hasn't heard anything about graduation and is bummed at the possibility she might not get to walk across the stage with the rest of her class. The makeshift graduation ceremony after work at Winn-Dixie started out as a joke with her co-workers who are also slated to graduate this spring, but turned into a meaningful event during an otherwise difficult time in her life.
"I actually didn't think it would mean that much, because it's just a little fun thing to do," she said. "But I remember hearing my name over the intercom and stuff, and it kind of hit me, like, I am a senior now. I may not be able to go walk across the stage, but at least I get to have fun with my colleagues."
The Winn-Dixie graduation ceremony is one of several ways people are finding joy where they can during a time of unprecedented uncertainty. Grocery store workers in particular have been pulling heavy weight during the crisis, with restaurants being either closed or limited to take-out or delivery only.
The added pressure on his employees has been tough at times, Patterson said, but they are finding small ways to make it easier.
"The thing about this is that it's a tough time for everybody, and you've got to find a way to have fun amidst all the chaos," he said. "If we're stressed and we're not feeling comfortable in our environment, then we could pass that on to our customers. So that's what really makes me feel good about our associates being able to find happiness and joy where they can."
Annie Blanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8632.