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HCPS to honor graduating seniors with Richmond Raceway victory lap, ceremony watch party

Senior year for Henrico County Public Schools’ Class of 2020 has been anything but typical, and its commencement festivities will be just as unique. With regular June commencement ceremonies at VCU’s Siegel Center called off to combat the spread of coronavirus, each HCPS high school will celebrate its seniors with a three-part “Graduation Celebration 2020” instead.

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Senior year for Henrico County Public Schools’ Class of 2020 has been anything but typical, and its commencement festivities will be just as unique. With regular June commencement ceremonies at VCU’s Siegel Center called off to combat the spread of coronavirus, each HCPS high school will celebrate its seniors with a three-part “Graduation Celebration 2020” instead.

The three events will include a virtual “Graduation Ceremony Watch Party,” a “Graduation Victory Lap” at Richmond Raceway, and a “Cap and Gown Photo Session” for each graduate, capturing the moment they accept their diploma. The events will enable graduates and their families and friends to mark the special occasion while also prioritizing health and safety.

Graduation Ceremony Watch Party (June 8-11)

This TV, video, and social-media event will enable graduates and loved ones to watch and experience commencement from home while observing coronavirus health and safety guidelines. It will include many of the elements of a traditional graduation, such as student speeches and remarks from local dignitaries. It is during this event that seniors will officially be pronounced “graduates.” Most important of all will be the recognition of each senior as their pictures are shown and their names are announced ceremoniously in a video slideshow, enabling each graduate to have a well-earned moment in the spotlight. HCPS’ livestream of the virtual ceremony, as well as a cable television simulcast, will allow families to plan small at-home “watch parties” to help celebrate graduates. Experiences posted on social media will make the experience a shared celebration.

Graduation Victory Lap (June 15-17, rain date June 18)

The second element of Graduation Celebration 2020 will give seniors and their families a chance to gather and “process” safely as a group, while enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Richmond Raceway has offered HCPS use of “America’s Premier Short Track” for a “Graduation Victory Lap,” where graduates and their immediate family members will parade in cars around the historic oval. Seniors will arrive in decorated vehicles (one vehicle per graduate, with a nine-passenger limit) and be directed to the track by a Richmond Raceway pace car. Once in “pole position,” they will be able to tune into HCPS’ student radio station to hear “Pomp and Circumstance” (and possibly other special messages!) while cruising toward victory lane. Principals will be there to wave the checkered flag as each graduate crosses the finish line while their names are announced in front of school faculty members and local dignitaries.

Cap and Gown Photo Session (Specific day and time will be determined by each school.)

The culmination of Graduation Celebration 2020 will be a chance for graduates to pose in their caps and gowns, accepting their diplomas, in individual photos taken by a professional photographer. Each graduate will have a scheduled time to come to their high school, receive their diploma, and pose for an iconic picture. HCPS will cover the cost of one 8-by-10 print for each graduate.

Seniors and their families will receive more detailed information about Graduation Celebration 2020 from their principals.

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College Greek life priorities change in the face of COVID-19 

Virginia-based student sororities and fraternities are using Zoom to recruit new members. Some of these organizations believe the challenge of social distancing has strengthened bonds amongst each other as well as their philanthropy efforts.

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By Megan Lee

There are no dodgeball games, cookouts or other rushing events at Virginia Commonwealth University’s campus in Richmond, but fraternities and sororities are still recruiting new brothers and sisters.

The Greek chapters at VCU, and many other Virginia schools, are using Zoom to recruit new members. Some fraternities and sororities believe the challenge of social distancing has strengthened bonds amongst each other as well as their philanthropy efforts.

“Not being able to meet in-person this semester as a whole chapter has been hard, but it has given us more time to focus on our priorities,” said John Rudolph, VCU Pi Kappa Alpha recruitment chair. “Those being our grades, community service and philanthropy.”

VCU’s fraternities and sororities have given around 8,400 hours of time to charities in the last academic year, said LaDarius Thompson, associate director of Civic Engagement and Fraternity and Sorority Life at VCU.

VCU Pi Kappa Alpha is finding alternative methods for their usual events like Bowling Buddy, community clean-ups and food drives, according to Rudolph. Rudolph said the organization is preparing virtual fundraisers using Instagram and Venmo for its annual Fireman’s Challenge, benefitting the Evans-Haynes Burn Center in Richmond.

Bingo donation boards, orders of Campus Cookies, and raffles are just a few of the virtual fundraising challenges Virginia Tech Kappa Alpha sorority are circulating through Instagram and Snapchat stories.

Mojdeh Nourbakhsh, Panhellenic director of risk at Virginia Tech, said that most of its fraternity and sorority causes “are in greater need now more than ever” due to the pandemic.

Kappa Alpha and Kappa Delta at Virginia Tech are raffling Airpods and a TV on social media to fundraise for NRV CARES, a nonprofit advocating for children involved in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court proceedings.

William & Mary Kappa Sigma President Danny Driscoll said the chapter has raised $600 worth of food this semester for the Williamsburg House of Mercy, a local homeless shelter, and plans to raise another $10,000 over this academic year for philanthropy while following COVID-19 guidelines.

These philanthropy efforts are sometimes overshadowed by the notorious social life fraternities and sororities can bring to college campuses. But these social and recruiting events play a large role in establishing the sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that is an integral part of the organizations, Driscoll said.

Nourbakhsh said that when recruiting in person, “you get a better feel of their energy and how they would benefit your chapter best.”

Since most of these in-person events cannot happen, many Greek leadership boards decided to decrease semester fees.

“I think it’s so wrong to charge someone $300 when what are they really getting besides to say, ‘I’m in Kappa Sigma?’” Driscoll said.

 Although rectangles of faces on a Zoom call have replaced real life meetings, there is no substitute for the brothers and sisters that live together — a common standard for many fraternities and sororities.

Students have tested positive in Virginia Tech’s Kappa Delta house, said Claudia Wrenn, the sorority’s vice president of membership.

Wrenn said that the organization’s positive students were quarantined off campus until they were well. She said that resident assistants conduct walk-throughs of all on-campus Greek housing, ensuring that masks are worn at all times in common areas and social distancing measures are in place.

Potential issues arise in off-campus housing, where universities do not have much control.

Thompson said that VCU, the Interfraternity Council and VCU Police have met with sororities and fraternities to reiterate state orders and find ways to prevent COVID-19 within Greek-populated houses.

Some of the Greek chapters that ignored college COVID-19 guidelines have suffered the consequences. Radford University suspended the Iota Zeta chapter of its Theta Chi fraternity for not following health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to The Roanoke Times.

James Madison University also brought Harrisonburg to the top of a USA Today list of college towns with the worst U.S. COVID-19 outbreaks. Twenty percent of JMU students participate in Greek organizations, according to the university’s Fraternity and Sorority Life page.

There are no confirmed links between JMU Greek life and the school’s COVID-19 cases, but Driscoll said that people are connecting the two.

“We don’t want to be the scapegoats that they’re making Greek life into at JMU right now,” Driscoll said.

About 800,000 undergraduate students participated in Greek life across the country in 2018, but VCU Pi Kappa Alpha and William & Mary Kappa Sigma have seen lower recruitment numbers than usual with this year’s freshman class. Virginia Tech Kappa Delta is anticipating even lower numbers for spring recruitment.

Driscoll said Kappa Sigma has not reached half of the number of potential new members he would typically like to have at this point in the semester.

However, he said the unique challenges of this year have created a space for a different bond amongst the incoming class as they “navigate the pandemic together.” Driscoll decided to have a “year-long pledge class” for the 2020-2021 school year to create a longer acclimation period for potential recruits and a greater reach to interested students.

As fraternities and sororities reevaluate chapter goals, they also have time to reflect on Greek life’s impact beyond the college campus, Nourbakhsh said.

Nourbakhsh serves on a national committee created by the National Panhellenic Conference to address underlying racism and noninclusive policies within Greek life.

“There is so much work to be done in our country and starting off with organizations like Greek life and fixing systemic issues is a great start to changing the nation’s perceptions and culture,” Nourbakhsh said.

Students said they are eager to return to regular life.

“Coming from a pandemic and going back to normalcy, whatever normalcy will be, is going to benefit participation, loyalty, interest in these fraternities and sororities because people miss it,” Driscoll said.

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UR President Ronald Crutcher announces plans to step down from post in 2022

Following a sabbatical, Crutcher will return to the faculty as a university professor.  

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Ronald A. Crutcher has announced his intention to step down as president of the University of Richmond with the goal of the next president taking office no later than July 1, 2022.

“As I considered the great disruption and challenges facing higher education due to the pandemic, and contemplated what would best ensure the success of a future presidential search and our institutional momentum, I decided that it was important for the University to have as much time as possible to effectively identify and recruit the next president,” Crutcher said in a letter to alumni, faculty, staff, and students.

“The Board is extraordinarily grateful for the thoughtful manner in which President Crutcher has approached his decision, announcing his plans now to ensure time for a successful presidential search in this challenging national and global climate,” said Paul B. Queally, the board’s rector. “As he indicated to the Board, the University’s momentum of recent years is too important to risk interrupting, and we fully agree.”

Crutcher will continue to advance a variety of critical University initiatives, including guiding UR through the pandemic and the uncertainty and disruption it has brought.

“This year will certainly bring challenges, but it will also offer all of us new possibilities,” Crutcher wrote in his letter. “In every instance, we must seize such moments as opportunities to advance our shared aspirations and dreams for the University — and to realize our goal of being, and being recognized as, one of the strongest liberal arts institutions in the nation. That work continues to encourage and inspire me every day, and I look forward to what we will accomplish together over these next two academic years.”

Under Crutcher’s leadership the University has achieved the following:

  • Enhanced resources available to faculty, including programs focused on academic leadership and the creation of the Teaching and Scholarship Hub.
  • The creation of the Office of Scholars and Fellowships and the growing record of students’ success in securing prestigious national awards.
  • An increased national reputation for academic excellence as evidenced by the University’s highest ever U.S. News & World Report ranking of 22 among the nation’s top liberal arts colleges for 2021.
  • Important attention to developing and implementing strategies to ensure greater diversity and a more inclusive community, as detailed in the University’s Making Excellence Inclusive initiative.
  • A more diverse faculty, with 36% of hires in the last five years being persons of color or international and 42% being women.
  • Increased pride among UR alumni, who are more actively engaging with the University and contributing to historic levels of fundraising success.
  • Outstanding new facilities for well-being and Athletics.
  • Renovations of academic facilities in the arts and in the humanities, including an expansion to Ryland Hall to develop a center for the humanities.

“We look forward to the further achievements that are sure to come under President Crutcher’s continued leadership,” said Susan G. Quisenberry, vice rector. “As he has indicated, he remains intently focused on what he intends to accomplish in the years to come, and the Board very much looks forward to our continued work together in this time.”

The Board will begin the search for the University’s next president this fall and will soon establish and charge a search committee to identify and recommend candidates. The search committee will include trustees, as well as members of the Spider community. Details about the search process, committee, and timeline will be communicated in the coming weeks. Input from the University community about the priorities the new president will be asked to advance and the qualities and skills most important to seek in candidates will also be crucial to the success of the search and the University’s next president.

Following a sabbatical, Crutcher will return to the faculty as a university professor.

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Virginia bill seeks to guarantee free school meals to students advances to Senate

The Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill this month to provide free school meals for 109,000 more public school students in the commonwealth.

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By Aliviah Jones

The Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill this month to provide free school meals for 109,000 more public school students in the commonwealth.

House Bill 5113, introduced by Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, passed the chamber unanimously. Roem’s bill requires eligible public elementary and secondary schools to apply for the Community Eligibility Provision through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.

“School food should be seen as an essential service that is free for everyone regardless of their income,” Roem said.

The program allows all students in an eligible school to receive free breakfast and lunch. Currently, 425 schools are eligible for CEP but don’t take part in the program, according to a document that details the financial impact of the legislation. More than 420 schools and 200,000 students participated in CEP during the 2018 to 2019 school year, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

The bill allows eligible schools to opt-out of the program if participating is not financially possible.
Most Virginia food banks have purchased twice as much food each month since the pandemic started when compared to last year, according to Eddie Oliver, executive director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks.

“We’re just seeing a lot of need out there and we know that school meal programs are really the front line of ensuring that kids in Virginia have the food they need to learn and thrive,” Oliver said.

Virginia school districts qualify for CEP if they have 40% or more enrolled students in a specified meal program, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). It also includes homeless, runaway, migrant, and foster children, Roem said.

Sandy Curwood, Director of the Virginia Department of Education Office of School Nutrition Programs, said school districts receive federal reimbursement based on a formula.

“Making sure that children have access to good healthy food, and particularly through school meals I think is a great opportunity,” Curwood said.

The federal government will reimburse schools that have more than 62.5% students who qualify for free meals, Roem said. Schools with between 55% and 62.4% of students enrolled will receive between 80% and 99% reimbursement.

“If HB 5113 is the law, how their children will eat during the school day will be one less worry for students and their families,”, said Semora Ward, a community organizer for the Hampton Roads-based Virginia Black Leadership Organizing Collaborative. The meals are available whether children are physically in schools or attending virtual classes.

The Virginia Black Leadership Organizing Collaborative has raised $8,000 in the past three years for unpaid school meals in Hampton and Newport News, according to Ward.

“While we are pleased with these efforts and the outpouring of community support, we should have never had to do this in the first place,” she said.

Roem was one of several legislators that took on the USDA earlier this year to not require students to be present when receiving free school meals during the pandemic. The Virginia General Assembly passed Roem’s bill earlier this year that allows school districts to distribute excess food to students eligible for the School Breakfast Program or National School Lunch Program administered by the USDA.

HB 5113 has been referred to the Senate Education and Health Committee.

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