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ALACHUA – The class of 2020 has seen traditional education turned upside down. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all schools in the state closed on March 13 and will remain closed for the rest of the school year.

Teachers and students had to change their entire way of teaching and learning as all education went online. Not only did the Class of 2020 deal with a change in education and isolation from their peers, but for seniors it means no traditional graduation, prom or the various other activities associated with the transition out of high school.

For many the final year in high school is a transformative time of vivid memories. The last month or so of high school is a busy time finishing school work while a multitude of events and parties occur culminating in the graduation ceremony, which has been a tradition throughout history. The class of 2020 will have none of these events as traditionally conducted. Restrictions on crowd size severely limited the traditional activities associated with senior year, especially the final school month when stay-at-home order even eliminated social contact with many of their friends.

Each high school has also created events for their own students to show school unity and pride. The City of Alachua teamed up with Santa Fe High School to honor graduating seniors by conducting an appreciation celebration event last week. On May 21, the school and city combined efforts to show their appreciation for the seniors’ hard work. Students initially came to the school in their cars to drop off textbooks and pick up caps and gowns. In what was a surprise to the graduating seniors as their cars entered the school property, they faced a line of individual signs featuring the photo and name of each student and the welcoming committees that were lined up offering congratulations and more.

As cars drove through the parking lot, stopping at designated areas, school staff gave each student a t-shirt featuring the graduating year, school name and City of Alachua logo. As the students passed each stop, they were met by applause and congratulations. The final stop was set up and funded by the City of Alachua. The city gave each student a black and red gym bag imprinted with the graduating year and the school and city logos, and containing a special message of congratulations, a variety of snacks, a Frisbee, flashlight carabiner, a pen and red thermos cup with the Class of 2020 emblazoned on it.

At the next stop they were offered a bagged lunch and drink provided by the city. City of Alachua staff and commissioners were all there to offer their support and congratulations to the students clapping and cheering as each car moved down the line. Also participating and handing out gym bags were Florida State Representative Clovis Watson, Jr. and Circuit Court Judge Susanne Wilson Bullard, both Santa Fe High School graduates.

“We wanted them to know that the city stood by them and wanted to acknowledge their achievements,” said Mayor Gib Coerper as he waved a sign congratulating the students.

All of the county’s seven high schools are developing events to make the year end special for this unique senior class, as is the school district itself. The Alachua County School District is finalizing plans for a combination of activities, programs and events to celebrate graduates, but is also asking local citizens to display messages of support for the Class of 2020 sometime during the period from May 26 through June 10, which is the final day the district will be holding graduation ceremonies. This could include messages on marquees/signs at businesses, churches, schools and other organizations, yard signs, even signs in windows or along fence lines at homes and businesses. The district is currently working with local media outlets to honor the Class of 2020 in other ways.

While traditional graduation ceremonies in auditoriums are canceled due to social distancing restrictions, the school district has arranged with the Gainesville Raceway to hold open air graduation ceremonies at the facility June 8-10 for the district’s high schools. To maintain social distancing, students and their families will drive into the Raceway and up to a decorated stage. As the graduates’ names are called out over the loudspeaker, they will get out of their cars, walk across the stage to accept their diplomas and have their photos taken. They will then get back in their cars and drive down a strip that runs next to the racetrack before exiting the facility. The Gainesville Raceway is providing their facility to the district free of charge. “We’re happy we can help the Class of 2020 have a graduation ceremony,” said track manager Mike Yurick. “We hope it will be a memorable experience for them.”

Between June 8 and 10, the senior class of 2020 will have their final ceremony before moving on in life beyond high school. “When COVID-19 closed schools, I made it a priority to have some sort of in-person graduation ceremony for our seniors,” said Superintendent Karen Clarke. “This ‘hybrid’ approach at the Raceway will give graduates the opportunity to walk across the stage in their caps and gowns while still keeping everyone as safe as possible.” Each high school will be sending specific instructions for the ceremonies directly to students and families.

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ALACHUA – A local community found a special way to pay tribute to veterans this past Monday as they observed Memorial Day. While the COVID-19 pandemic changed routines and events, including the cancellation of most Memorial Day ceremonies, residents of Turkey Creek in Alachua banded together to honor the fallen. Due to COVID guidelines, the ceremony was held outdoors with as little close contact as possible.

At 8 a.m. on Memorial Day, the vehicles started to gather at the Turkey Creek Golf Club. Golf carts came first, followed by motorcycles and finally cars and trucks. Some vehicles were decorated with signs honoring deceased veterans while others were driven by veterans there to honor their fallen comrades. Most were decorated with flags. A sound system played music as the participants gathered. At 9 a.m. Alachua Mayor Gib Coerper led the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by the haunting melody of “Taps” honoring the fallen and deceased.

Many of those assembled were veterans.

Eric Persons was a helicopter door gunner in Vietnam during the brutal Tet Offensive and the Battle of Hue. All 10 of his brothers and sisters also served in the military.

Standing next to their golf cart were three veterans who made the military their career. Dwayne Romano served 27 years in the Navy from 1958 -1985, Dwight Richard served 30 years in the Army, retiring in 2018. Mildred Perkins served 20 years in the Army.

Standing alone dressed in a red Marine shirt and cap was Ken Beasock, a retired Marine Colonel. He served 42 years from 1950 -1992 and saw combat in the Korean War and two tours of Vietnam.

Farther back among the motorcycle riders were Fred Johnson and Virginia McCord. Johnson served in Vietnam from 1970-1971 as a helicopter pilot. Although the U.S. had already been doing it covertly, Johnson was in the first Cobra helicopter to officially cross into Cambodia.

McCord was a Navy nurse during the war and was stationed in Oakland. California. “Many of the patients were not older vets but young ones with various health issues or injuries,” McCord said. “Many were not much more than boys.” She went on to make the service a career and was married to a Navy officer.

These were just a few of the veterans out of a convoy of over 50 vehicles. Each veteran had a story and many had seen combat during their time in service. All were there to honor their fallen comrades or family members.

The line of vehicles pulled out behind a police car with lights flashing to slowly wind through the neighborhood as residents came out on the street to pay tribute to those who had served. The convoy made several trips through the neighborhood as residents clapped or waved American flags and posters supporting veterans.

While many of this year’s Memorial Day ceremonies were cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns, Turkey Creek residents ensured that veterans were honored and the fallen were not forgotten.

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ALACHUA – Alachua City Commissioner Dayna Miller has been sworn in for a three-year term after running unopposed for seat 3 on the commission. City Manager Adam Boukari administered the oath of office at the May 18 commission meeting. Miller also served as Vice Mayor during her first term.

Miller completed the Florida League of Cities' Institute for Elected Municipal Officials (IEMO) III "The Leadership Challenge" educational program in March and was presented with certificate of completion by Mayor Gib Coerper. The program is specially designed for elected officials who completed the Advanced Institute for Elected Municipal Officials program. The primary objective of the IEMO is to provide elected municipal officials with an intensive academic program that will assist them in their elected role.

In other business, Commissioner Robert Wilford will assume the duties of Vice Mayor for the coming year. According to the Alachua City Charter, the City Commission elects a new Vice Mayor annually from its members at the first City Commission meeting after the City election. This year Wilford was selected by unanimous vote.

This meeting was the first in-person meeting held in the Alachua City Commissioner Chambers since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down public gatherings. Social isolation state rules required all government offices closed to the public and that most employees work from home. Phase 1 of reopening has allowed for more openings and expanded crowd size. But there were noticeable differences. The meeting was sparsely attended and audience members wore masks and were separated in different rows. The Commission also wore masks, occasionally taking them off when necessary to speak.

Local resident Virginia Johns has been reappointed to the Planning & Zoning Board (P&Z), which serves as the Local Planning Agency and consists of five voting members and a non-voting School Board representative. The P&Z provides recommendations to the City Commission on development issues and makes decisions on certain zoning, building and development applications.

Members of the P&Z must be a City of Alachua resident. Board member Virginia Johns served a three-year term, which expires May 22, 2020 and will now begin an additional three-year term ending May 22, 2023. Local resident Malcolm Dixon also applied for the appointment. During the Commission meeting, applicants for the appointment were invited to speak prior to the vote. Of the two candidates, only Johns was present and she was subsequently voted unanimously for reappointment.

In other news, the City of Alachua Police Department (ADP) will be receiving new computer equipment. On Feb. 24, 2020, the City Commission approved submitting a grant application to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) under the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program. The grant application for $20,157 was submitted on behalf of APD for the purchase of tablets and laptops. The department has since received notice of award from FDLE for the grant project and can now purchase the items.

The annual audit of the City's Fiscal Year 2018-2019 financial statements has been completed by Purvis, Gray and Company, the City's independent Certified Public Accountants and the City received an unmodified ("clean") opinion of its the financial statements for the 2018-2019 year. This is the highest audit opinion that can be received and is the 17th consecutive year the City has received this distinction. Once the audit report is accepted by the City Commission, the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) will be submitted to the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) of the United States and Canada for review to receive the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting.

The City of Alachua has received notice that Pressure Technology, Inc. is considering Alachua to expand its operations. The firm focuses on hot isostatic pressing services to industries such as aerospace and medical. If the company locates in Alachua, it is anticipated to create 15 new jobs over three years, beginning in 2021 with an average annual salary of $60,000.

Pressure Technology, Inc. is making application for participation in the state’s Qualified Target Industry (QTI) Tax Refund program. The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) offers several incentives to prospective and expanding businesses, including the QTI program. A company may receive refunds on taxes it pays including corporate income tax, sales tax, ad valorem tax following job creation. Pressure Technology, Inc.’s application totals $75,000.

The QTI program requires a 20 percent local government match. The match totals $15,000, which would be divided equally between Alachua County and the City of Alachua. The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners approved its share of the QTI match at its May 12 meeting. The City of Alachua Commission subsequently approved its share of the match at the May 18 meeting.

Should Pressure Technology, Inc. expand in Alachua, it must demonstrate job creation and will only receive a refund for actual jobs created and can only receive refunds on taxes paid.

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NEWBERRY – The City of Newberry called an emergency meeting of the City Commission on May 26 to discuss actions by the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC). During the May 20 Newberry Emergency City Commission meeting, Commissioners asked that a resolution be drafted for Mayor Jordan Marlowe’s signature the following day in response to the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) actions on May 19.

During the BOCC meeting on May 19, County Commissioners voted 3-2 to rescind its mandatory mask requirement and instead made the wearing of masks “strongly recommended” rather than required. The mask requirement order was put in place earlier in the month to help curtail the spread of COVID-19 as the state begins Phase 1 of the governor’s Plan for Florida’s Recovery.

However, later the same day, in a joint meeting with the City of Gainesville, the BOCC flipped their earlier decision, once again requiring the mandatory wearing of masks. Not only had Marlowe received calls from citizens and business owners, but other Newberry City Commissioners had as well.

On the heels of the County’s flip/flop decision, Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe said the constant changes in face mask requirements were causing stress and confusion in his city.

In response to the County’s decision, the City of Newberry called the May 26 emergency session in an attempt to address the confusion. During that meeting several City Commissioners said they thought the BOCC should have talked with the other municipalities in the county prior to making changes based on one city’s preference, especially since the County was not in sync with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ Executive Order.

Several Commissioners voiced similar opinions. “This is not about facemasks,” said Commissioner Rocky McKinley, “it’s about stability.”

“Citizens are looking for guidelines,” Marlowe said. “Instead there is a lack of structure in our county government.”

During the meeting Commissioners indicated they had received several telephone calls regarding the county’s inability to make a decision and stick to it. “What we’re trying to do tonight is to find some stability for our citizens,” Marlowe said.

“The governor is getting advice and medical data in consultation with health officials,” said Marlowe. “I think it is in the citizens’ best interest to follow the governor’s lead on this issue.”

Although the city attorney was tasked with developing a resolution, Commissioner Tim Marden ultimately made a motion to update the City’s current Emergency Order to mirror the governor’s order and authorized the mayor to sign the resolution the following day so it could be implemented immediately. Commissioner Rick Coleman seconded the motion. Hearing no public comment, the motion passed unanimously.

During the May 26 City Commission meeting, City Attorney Scott Walker talked about Resolution 2020-25, which his office had drafted for the mayor’s signature. “We raised a couple of constitutional grounds for our case for objecting to the county’s position.” One issue was that the county’s order was so broad and void for vagueness that it would be difficult to require someone to be subject to criminal penalty because of the vague nature of the order. “We believe that it creates a concern on the part of implementation of that order and that due to that fact, the City of Newberry declines to enforce the order.”

The resolution specified that there is to be coordination between the County, the cities and the Florida Division of Emergency Management. “For those reasons we believe enforcement is problematic,” Walker said.

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ALACHUA COUNTY The Class of 2020 will have a fitting venue as they prepare to ‘cross the finish line’ and mark the end of their high school careers.

The district has arranged with the Gainesville Raceway to hold open air graduation ceremonies at the facility June 8-10 for the district’s seven high schools.

To maintain social distancing, students and their families will drive into the Raceway and up to a decorated stage. As the graduates’ names are called out over the loudspeaker, they will get out of their cars, walk across the stage to accept their diplomas and have their photos taken. They will then get back in their cars and drive down a strip that runs next to the racetrack before exiting the facility.

The Gainesville Raceway is providing their facility to the district free of charge.

“We’re happy we can help the Class of 2020 have a graduation ceremony,” said track manager Mike Yurick. “We hope it will be a memorable experience for them.”

“When COVID-19 closed schools, I made it a priority to have some sort of in-person graduation ceremony for our seniors,” said Superintendent Karen Clarke. “This ‘hybrid’ approach gives graduates the opportunity to walk across the stage in their caps and gowns while still keeping everyone as safe as possible.”

The schedule of ceremonies will be as follows:

June 8: Newberry High School, 9-11 a.m.

Hawthorne High School, 2-3:30 p.m.

PAM@Loften High School, 6-7:30 p.m.

June 9: Eastside High School, 9:30-noon

Buchholz High School, 5-7:30 p.m.

June 10: Santa Fe High School, 9:30-noon

Gainesville High School, 5-7:30 p.m.

Each high school will be sending specific instructions for the ceremonies directly to students and families.

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GAINESVILLE – At press release, the Gainesville-Alachua County Association of REALTORS (GACAR) raised close to $5,500.00 and collected over a dozen overflowing boxes of food and personal hygiene donations for the Bread of the Mighty Food Bank.

Thanks to the generous contributions from GACAR members, local businesses, and the general public, GACAR is able to provide over 54,000 meals to Bread of the Mighty during such a critical time. GACAR is extremely grateful to our media contacts at WCJB TV20, The Gainesville Sun, Alachua County Today, and the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce for promoting this important charitable event and enabling us to better serve this community.

GACAR President Jeremy Thomas was on hand today helping unload donations and thanking visitors (from an acceptable social distance, of course).

“It is truly humbling to see not only our REALTORS and business partners today, but also regular members of the community and representatives from surrounding offices have dropped off donations,” said Thomas. “Everyone has been so kind and encouraging. I am proud that our community has come together to help alleviate some of the hardship caused by food insecurity. “

While summer months are typically difficult for local food banks, it becomes downright devastating when coupled with the economic effects of COVID-19 rippling through the community. Even though this event was successful, food insecurity is still a major issue within our community. For those that are able, please consider visiting www.breadofthemighty.com/donate to contribute directly to this worthwhile organization.

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HIGH SPRINGS – For the last several weeks, High Springs City Hall has been attempting to balance the health and safety of city staff while still delivering good customer service. Beginning next week, the first two phases of a three-phase plan will begin.

During Phase 1, for the week of May 26, live operators will be available weekdays from 8 a.m. to noon to answer any questions by phone at 386-454-1416. Calls outside of that time will be answered by voicemail, and a member of staff will return the call.

During Phase 2, beginning the week of June 1 and until such time that City Manager Joel DeCoursey, Jr. authorizes, City Hall will be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. by appointment only.  These appointments are for new accounts, closing or transferring an account and tag related transactions only.  To pay a bill, continue using the City drop box or paying on line.

Plans may be subject to change in accordance with further guidance from county, state or federal government.

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