The Ledger | Kathy Leigh Berkowitz | June 20, 2020
LAKELAND — When Major League Baseball announced early Saturday that it would close all Spring Training facilities in Arizona and Florida until they are disinfected for COVID-19, Polk County Schools Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd was faced with the dilemma of where to move the three graduation ceremonies taking place Monday.
Six schools were scheduled to hold graduations on Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium on Monday, the spring training home of the Detroit Tigers. Gause Academy and Roosevelt Academy were scheduled at 4 p.m., Fresh Start’s Lakeland and Winter Haven campuses at 6 p.m. and the Ridge and Traviss Technical Centers at 8 p.m. Byrd said that the schools will be contacting families to let them know where their graduations will be held.
“It is very unprecedented,” she said. “You never know when things are going to close. We are going to start working immediately to notify parents.
“You can’t foresee what is going to happen,” Byrd said. “All we can do is the best we can.”
Byrd and Lakeland Parks and Recreation Director Bob Donahay were briefed on the matter hours before Saturday’s Mulberry Senior High School graduation at 4 p.m. That graduation was allowed to go on as scheduled.
Donahay said the City of Lakeland owns Tigertown, where the graduations were to be held, and leases the property to the Tigers.
“They are our number one tenant,” he said.
He said the closing wasn’t on the city’s radar but that the Tigers have been very cooperative from the president to the owner.
Major League Baseball is in negotiations right now to begin its delayed season, so Lakeland and Polk County Schools had moved the graduations to the evening hours instead of the morning to accommodate any training by the team. The graduations started June 8, and the ceremonies scheduled for Monday were to be the last.
“Like Superintendent Byrd said, it is all about the children,” Donahay said.
Polk County Schools, in partnership with law enforcement, the fire department, and the City of Lakeland were working to make the graduations as healthy as possible.
The city is responsible for the sanitizing and disinfecting that takes place before and after each event. That included picking up trash and bringing in backpack sprayers loaded with disinfectant to spray down all seats that were occupied, as well as bathrooms.
“Everything we do is in conjunction with Major League Baseball,” Donahay said. “We have the longest relationship between any city and any Major League Baseball team, 84 years. It is pretty remarkable.”
Donahay said it has been thrilling to watch the students graduate thus far.
“I have watched kids walk through our center field gate so happy to get their diploma they were crying,” he said. “It has been touching.”
The news of the MLB closings first broke on USA Today Sports, who confirmed that players and staff would not be allowed back into the facilities until they test negative for COVID-19.
The move followed players who tested positive for the virus, five from the Philadelphia Phillies and one from the Houston Astros, in addition to one player from the Toronto Blue Jays who was said to have developed COVID-19 symptoms, according to an article written by Manny Randhawa, a reporter for the MLB.com based in Denver.