An Alabama teen and her family are outraged after she was removed from a school's graduation for opting out of the in-person ceremony over fears for COVID-19.
In an interview with HuffPost, Jessie Skyy Turney-Zapata spoke about how devastated she was on July 21 when her entire family watched her graduation ceremony and realized that school officials had removed her from the program entirely.
The 16-year-old was slated to graduate from Covenant Christian Academy in Huntsville, Alabama, a school that caters to students being home-schooled. Alabama law states students being home-schooled need to technically be enrolled in a private school, and Covenant Christian Academy gives families access to field trips, extracurricular activities and teaching materials.
But Covenant Christian Academy is associated with the Rock Family Worship Center, where a pastor tested positive for COVID-19 on July 5. In a Facebook video, Pastor Rusty Nelson said that the rising cases and infected pastor would mean the church would stay closed.
Alabama's COVID-19 infection rates have risen sharply since the beginning of the month. On Friday, Alabama reported 1,669 new coronavirus cases and a state record of 2,283 cases for Thursday. The Alabama Department of Public Health said 38 people died from COVID-19 on Friday, bringing the daily average of deaths above 23.
ADPH updated "Confirmed Hospitalizations" to 1570 today. They have had issues updating this chart most of the week, but maybe things are back on track now. pic.twitter.com/YGWEXlE5C2— Bama Tracker: Alabama COVID-19 (@BamaTracker) July 24, 2020
For these reasons, Turney-Zapata did not feel comfortable attending the ceremony in person and was told she could watch the event with her family online. She sent the link out to her extended family, hoping everyone would hear her name be called.
But the family sat there for more than two hours and never heard her name or any of her accomplishments. She was completely erased from the event.
“It was bad enough I couldn’t participate and I missed prom. I had worked so hard to graduate early and get to this point ― to find out that nobody was even going to acknowledge it, it really hurt, it really hurt,” Turney-Zapata said.
Her mother told HuffPost that school officials said nothing about excluding her daughter when she told them the family would not be attending the in-person event.
According to HuffPost, Turney-Zapata is an aspiring singer who has already started courses for an audio arts certificate from Full Sail University.
When asked what happened by HuffPost reporters, representatives for Covenant Christian Academy denied they were discriminating against Turney-Zapata, writing in a statement that it was common practice to omit anyone who did not attend the in-person event.
Greg Gillman, executive pastor of the Rock Family Worship Center, told the outlet that when they gave Turney-Zapata's family the link, they did not intend to imply that she would be mentioned during the event. Three other students did not attend and got the same treatment, but Gillman said none of the other students said anything concerning their fears about the spread of COVID-19.
More than 500 people stuffed into the church for the graduation just weeks after it was forced to close because of COVID-19 infections.
“Please rest assured that neither Sylvia [DeVine, the school superintendent] nor anyone else at CCA treated Jessie differently because she chose not to walk in the graduation ceremony due to concerns over COVID-19, which was absolutely her right and prerogative, or for any other reason," Gillman told HuffPost.
"Sylvia and CCA were simply following their standard, long-standing practices for graduation ceremonies at CCA and treated her absence in the same manner as others who chose not to walk for graduation this year or in any prior years,” he added.
The news outlet notes that attendees may have violated some of the social distancing rules Alabama put in place since the coronavirus pandemic began, including a requirement of 6 feet of distance between people at public events.
Turney-Zapata, whose mother is Black and father is white, said the snub was devastating considering the amount of work she put in to graduate a year early.
Her mother told HuffPost that since she and her husband settled in the area, they have dealt with racism from the school. Part of why they decided to home-school their daughter was because of the racism in the area.
“I don’t want to be the angry Black woman and I don’t want to see what’s not there, but every year, every single year, it’s just a problem. I’ve talked to the principal too many times. They lose my paperwork every year. I have to resubmit things every year. I’ve been told to follow rules no other family has to follow,” Hannah Turney-Zapata said.
She added that people in the area had even politicized mask-wearing and said they believe "It's about being one of those crazy liberals."
The bright teen said she was always made to feel like an outsider at the school and over the years had problems with being singled out by the people in charge.
“For me looking back on it, the only thing I can think of ― there’s a little Black girl, trying to get something, trying to jump past everybody else, and at the end of the day, if she just doesn’t want to come over here, then she’s not going to get acknowledged,” Jessie said.
In a video she was forced to send to family members who did not understand what happened, Jessie explained that she would make the same decision if given the chance to do it all over again.
"It hurts not getting acknowledged like the rest. With that being said, I do not regret protecting my family [by staying home],” she said in the video.