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Emanuel County Schools’ virtual students now permitted to attend prom

Virtual juniors and seniors may now attend prom at their respective schools, thanks to a vote by the Emanuel County Board of Education during its April meeting held last Tuesday. Prior to the vote, the board of education classified prom as an extracurricular activity, which virtual students were not permitted to participate in. The vote fell 6-0. (Board member Sandra Swinney was absent.)

While the change of stance was probably welcomed news by many students and others inside the school system, there are a few individuals in the community who were relieved to hear about the vote. Darby Gates was one of them.

“Shayna Boston and I had a meeting at Leannas toward the end of February after Swainsboro High School announced prom was going to be held. When that announcement was made on Facebook, it stated all juniors and seniors were invited to attend. Shortly after it was posted, it was edited within a few hours to say ‘all in-person learning students’ were invited. I noticed the edit, as did many others. I called and inquired about the change and asked them to clarify something—the face-to-face 11th and 12th grade students were able to bring a date that is considered ‘out of network,’ meaning homeschooled, attends another school or district, with just a form filled out,” Gates said. “At that point, I was told no because those virtual students were not allowed to participate in any extracurricular. As i wrote my own community article addressing the issue on March 31, according to the Emanuel County Board of Education, ‘extracurricular activity,’ is outlined as athletics, per the Georgia High School Association, and any school-sponsored club and organization that gives parents the right to withhold their children from participation. Prom was not and is not outlined as an extracurricular activity.”

From that point, Gates, along with others, went to work. Set out to make a difference, they formed a private group on Facebook comprised of community members, business leaders, virtual parents, and church clergy.

In the weeks since, leading up to the board of ed’s decision last week, the group made a considerable amount of headway. They had decided the private prom would be held Saturday, May 15, following Swainsboro High’s prom the night before. They had a location and a plan—then the location fell through. Gates said it took “weeks of hitting brick wall after brick wall” before the committee was able to secure the Shriners Clubhouse for the original date. With the date and location determined, the group went on to find a deejay, food and beverage vendors, chaperones, and a growing RSVP list of students who were excited. The ultimate goal from the very start, Gates explained, was to get the virtual learning students from both Swainsboro High School and Emanuel County Institute to prom, be it at their schools or at a private event. That’s why when her husband, Brad, had a “pull” to go and speak with Superintendent Dr. Kevin Judy, he listened to his heart. Gates, a religious woman, thinks that meeting really helped.

“Brad had listened for weeks to what was going on with the situation, Shayna and myself, the planning, not being able to find a location that would allow us to hold the prom,” she said. “We talked about it and prayed over the whole situation. A few days later, he had run into town to get a paintbrush at Swainsboro Supply. As he was driving over, he had a pull that he needed to speak with Dr. Judy in person. He says it was one of those things like, ‘Do this right now. If you wait to go to the store first, it will be too late.’ Brad went in, they had a discussion, and that afternoon, things started moving pretty quickly.”

The “pretty quickly” Gates is referring to started with Dr. Judy reaching out to Boston, who had contacted him herself earlier that morning and asked what he could do to help. The superintendent also told Boston he would personally speak to the board about permitting the virtual learning students to attend their prom.

On April 14, Gates and company were informed the board voted to allow them to attend. She says they were ‘ecstatic, excited, and extremely pleased’ with the board’s decision. In a few words, the vote meant the group’s hard work and determination had paid off. Yet, the success feels a little deeper for Gates.

Gates and her husband have been actively involved in ministry and church launches since 2008. In 2017, God brought the pair to Swainsboro. Part of the ministry they’ve been doing has been to “help facilitate the local churches” to be the church by following the example Jesus Christ set.

“Love your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength and to love your neighbor as yourself. This is how we address the malaise that looms over this community. Jesus started His ministry be healing the leper, the paraplegic, the blind. This almost always brought Him into confrontation with community leadership. This is the ‘challenge’ model He defined for us and that we’re facing today. The church can do better. Business can do better. Civil governance can do better,” she said. “To do better, we have to address things face-on. Prom was clearly a situation where the virtual learning kids weren’t being treated with the dignity and respect of ‘loving our neighbor.’ I’m a mom of an SHS junior. Because he’s not a virtual student, II’ve been asked numerous times why I even care. My response is that I have compassion for doing what’s right, even when the rest of society says it’s not. These juniors and seniors have waited years to be able to attend their prom. Just because they made a choice 10 months ago, they were stripped of that opportunity. We were going to do our best to change that.”

Today, Gates realizes this change wasn’t executed alone. She thanks God for His blessing over the situation, Boston for jumping headfirst into the planning alongside her, the many community members who stepped up to help throughout, and especially Dr. Judy and the Emanuel County Board of Education for hearing and listening to its community and “making the right decision to include the students who so rightfully belong at their prom.”

As for the village it took to effect this change, particularly the village who was the committee working behind the scenes to make sure the virtual students had a chance to attend prom somewhere, Gates sees the vote as a real indicator of the kind of effect people when they come together.

“I believe it’s amazing what can be accomplished when one person with a heart full of passion has a crazy idea and shares it with her friend who thinks the crazy idea is awesome, then the two work the plan to see it come to life,” Gates said. “We wanted to have these kids feel like they mattered and that they were included. Even though we no longer have to throw them a prom, I would do it over and over and over again—if we did it for the right reasons, if we did it for them. We were and are committed to making sure these students had a prom, but the truth is, we shouldn’t have to. And we don’t now.”

She also sees the vote as a meaningful step toward returning to a sense of normalcy. She referenced the pandemic and the major damage it has done to the world, this country, and the local community.

“Businesses have closed. People’s lives have been altered dramatically. Many of us have lost friends and loved ones. These kids had have the normalcy of a regular educational experience taken from them,” she said. “Brad and I are not ‘panic people.’ We sent our son to school, but we understand where the people who chose not to do so are coming from. These kids didn’t do anything wrong. Many of their families made decisions based upon what they thought best at the time almost a year ago in what was an absolutely crazy situation. With all the damage done by this disease, not of our making, we are all trying to unpack this last year and go back to life, to some semblance of normalcy. The state opened up from COVID regulations on April 8. What exactly would have been served by spring the ball of, ‘No, you can’t be included?’ on these kids now? Nothing. What good is it? Nothing! Sure, we can all make legalistic arguments, hold people’s decisions and choices from along a year ago in a time where nothing looked normal and nothing was going as planned to the letter of the law. Guess what? The law says that none of us were included... But there was this guy from Nazareth who hung on a tree to give all a chance to be included, and that is the Spirit of the law. That is loving your neighbor—including them.”

Swainsboro High School’s prom will be held May 14 while Emanuel County Institute’s prom is set for this Friday, April 23.

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