An Alabama teen claims she was erased from her high school graduation ceremony after she opted out of the in-person event due to concerns about COVID-19.
Like scores of other 2020 graduates, Jessie Skyy Turney-Zapata’s ability to celebrate her graduation from Covenant Christian Academy has been impacted by the pandemic. Turney-Zapata did not want to risk contracting the virus and passing it to her loved ones, so she decided against attending her commencement ceremony in person, according to a video posted on her Instagram page on July 23.
“I’m the oldest of five, the youngest being 6 months old, and as a daughter, big sister and granddaughter, I thought it would be selfish and irresponsible of me to go,” the 16-year-old said in the video.
Instead, her mother Hannah texted a link to a livestream of the ceremony and told them to tune in on July 21 to watch. The joyous occasion turned sour once Jessie Turney-Zapata and her family realized her name was not called. The only acknowledgement of her existence is a brief appearance during a slideshow of graduate headshots.
“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,” Jessie Turney-Zapata told HuffPost.
In the Instagram video, she said the school “promptly disabled and blocked” comments once people began to point out the omission during the livestream.
Covenant Christian Academy is a homeschool organization based in Huntsville, Alabama, that provides teaching materials, field trips and other activities to families. It is associated with Rock Family Worship Center. Jessie Turney-Zapata, one of the group’s only Black students, does not rule out the possibility of the snub being race-related. Hannah Turney-Zapata told HuffPost “the family often felt singled out” because she is married to a white man.
The family notified Covenant Christian Academy of her decision and according to emails viewed by HuffPost, the school said it would miss Turney-Zapata. It did not mention the removal of her name.
Greg Gillman, executive pastor of the Rock Family Worship Center, denies the school targeted Turney-Zapata.
“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 in a statement. “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.”
HuffPost reported that four students did not attend the July 21 graduation, and not one of them was mentioned during the ceremony or in the printed program.
Despite her perceived snub, Jessie Turney-Zapata does not regret her decision to stay home.
“I do not regret protecting my family,” the teen said in the Instagram video. “My sisters and brother are at less of a risk. I can sleep easy knowing I made the mature, responsible decision. Even if meant sacrificing my own opportunity to walk the stage. Love is about sacrifice and I love my family dearly which motivates me to stay socially distanced.”