Graduation ceremonies hang on county coronavirus numbers
Merle Comfort, former La Grande School Board chair, still got to hand out diplomas during last year’s drive-through ceremony. Students had some fun, but this year’s senor class asked for a traditional ceremony. (Photo by Amberlee Harder, Perfect Moments Photography)
Hayden Robinson saw her brother’s drive-through graduation ceremony last year, and she wants a more traditional ceremony for her class.
Fortunately, La Grande High School is in Union County, where coronavirus transmission is low. The district can plan a large gathering with some restrictions.
“The whole senior class is really looking forward to it and ready for this year to kind of come to a good end,” the La Grande senior said.
Other districts are not so fortunate. With graduation ceremonies starting soon, school leaders are keeping an eye on COVID-19 counts while striving to plan as normal a culminating experience as they can. Last week’s coronavirus county risk level report would have scuttled some plans by raising the restrictions for 18 counties, 15 of them moving into extreme. Gov. Kate Brown shook things up again Tuesday, moving those 15 counties back into high risk, effective Friday, May 7.
The Oregon Department of Education’s graduation ceremony guidance emphasizes equity and accessibility with as many recognition traditions as possible. OSBA also offers resources to help with planning. Any events are subject, though, to the county sector risk categories for indoor or outdoor entertainment.
Neah-Kah-Nie High School Principal Heidi Buckmaster said they are planning an outdoor ceremony June 5, rain or shine, because outdoors allows more guests. The school district is in moderate-risk Tillamook County.
Graduates will sit distanced in the school stadium’s grandstands, and guests will spread out on the field. Each of the 51 seniors will receive three guest tickets.
If Tillamook drops into a lower risk level, students will be able to have more guests. If case numbers move in the wrong direction, Buckmaster thinks they can still accommodate the expected guests.
Last year’s outdoor ceremony prioritized parents’ attendance, but with looser restrictions this year, teachers are hoping they can attend.
Buckmaster said they are trying to maintain as many traditions as they can, but they had to give up the senior slide show because they couldn’t find a good outdoor display method. That will be shared online.
Central Linn School District is among the districts that dialed back plans after the metrics announcement last week. Linn County moved to extreme but is now headed back to high.
Central Linn is planning an outdoor June 12 ceremony this year after a drive-through graduation last year. There will be no band or choir, and the roughly 40 seniors will be limited to two guests each.
“At least we’re doing something,” said Principal Heidi Hermansen.
La Grande High School Principal Brett Baxter liked the drive-through ceremony last year and thought students might want to continue it.
“We were worried they would want to do that forever and ever because that is better than sitting in a stuffy gym,” he said.
But when he polled the students, they strongly favored a traditional ceremony.
“They said, ‘We want to do it in the gym; we want to feel normal,’” Baxter said.
Robinson, the senior class president, said she thought last year’s ceremony was wonderful for being arranged so quickly but her classmates still wanted the traditional trappings, with speeches and all, because of the community aspect.
“The most important part of graduation is getting the recognition from your classmates and family and people you have grown up with, to be graduating on stage in front of everybody,” she said.
She also wants to see her classmates one last time, an opportunity denied her brother.
In a school year without dances, assemblies and sporting events, the June 5 ceremony will likely be the first time this year that nearly the whole class will be together. The district expects about 150 students to pick up their diplomas, and they will be allowed five guests each in a gym that seats more than 2,000. Families will be placed together, grads will be spaced out and there will be no handshaking. The district will also livestream the event.
“Anyone can watch this worldwide from the comfort of their home with AC, and we’ll be jealous,” Baxter said.
The Medford School District saw Jackson County move to extreme risk last week, which would have wrecked its plans. The district sought exemptions for graduation ceremonies.
Medford School Board Chair Jeff Kinsella said the district would do whatever it takes to follow the best available science and assure everyone’s safety.
“We don’t want to be a superspreader event,” he said.
But he also emphasized the event’s significance for students who have been working toward this day since kindergarten.
“It’s important for the kids, and I want to do what’s right for the kids,” Kinsella said. “To have that taken away from them is sad.”
Hood River School Board Chair Chrissy Reitz said she was sad last year when the district had to do a drive-through ceremony, but she said it ended up being a really special event. Students walked across a stage solo while their family drove up close, making it more intimate.
“It moved me to tears many times,” she said. “You were standing right there so you could see the joy of the whole family.”
Still, Reitz said, the students have asked for as much of a traditional ceremony as possible.
“They just wanted a chance to be together one more time because they haven’t been together,” she said.
Hood River County moved from moderate risk to high and will go back to moderate. The district is considering three possibilities for its June 11 ceremony depending on the risk level: a drive-through, a regular ceremony outside or smaller ceremonies done by cohort.
“It’s a special day no matter what form it takes,” Reitz said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
* This story was updated Wednesday, May 5.