State argues against in-person graduation; senator pushes back

Springfield High School’s 2019 commencement ceremony. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

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Springfield High School’s 2019 commencement ceremony. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

The Ohio Department of Education late last week told high schools they should not hold their normal, large, in-person graduation ceremonies due to coronavirus concerns, leading to some push-back from a local state senator.

“While we understand the significance, tradition and rites of passage many of these events represent, particularly for our seniors, schools should hold events virtually rather than conducting in-person events of this type, and record these events whenever possible and practicable,” the message from ODE said. “Congregate graduation ceremonies should not be held.”

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ODE said schools should honor state restrictions on mass gatherings as Ohioans attempt to limit the spread of the virus outbreak. At his Monday press conference, Gov. Mike DeWine said that while many businesses will re-open in early May, the order of no more than 10 people at gatherings will remain.

Local high schools have canceled most of their spring events, but many were delaying a decision on their graduation ceremony, hoping there would be some way to preserve that tradition for seniors and their families.

State Sen. Steve Huffman sent a letter Monday to state superintendent of schools Paolo DeMaria and Gov. Mike DeWine, arguing that with the state slowly beginning its “reopening,” schools should be given flexibility.

“We will be letting businesses come up with a plan that will assure social distancing and maintaining a safe work environment. We need to do the same concerning schools’ graduation ceremonies,” Huffman wrote. “We have local superintendents and elected school boards that can come up with individual plans on how to do this and what is right for their specific community.”

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What are schools planning?

Dayton and Centerville school officials have already decided to go with virtual ceremonies — Centerville on May 30 and Dayton’s six high schools at dates still to be determined. Dayton is still seeking input from principals and student leaders on the details. Centerville, which has more than 700 students in the class of 2020, cited the ODE guidance in their decision.

Beavercreek schools spokesman Ryan Gilding said his district set an alternate graduation date of June 25 at the Nutter Center but added that ceremony depends on state orders and health guidance. Carroll High School spokesman Michael Franz said Carroll had plans for a late June or late July ceremony in its football stadium, but is discussing options with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in light of the ODE guidance.

Northmont, Chaminade Julienne, Tipp City and Milton-Union schools all said they’re still working to finalize their plans.

Pat McBride, superintendent of Newton schools in Miami County, said he’s disappointed that state officials are not allowing for local control, or a voice for graduates and their families, given the very different circumstances schools face.

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“With approximately 50 graduates we felt that we could hold a traditional ceremony but do so in a manner that respects and adheres to the social distancing guidelines,” McBride said. “If nothing changes then Newton High School will conduct graduation in the manner that is prescribed by the ODE. We will provide for a remote ceremony … whatever that means.”

Arguments for, against

ODE’s recommendation was that schools hold an online ceremony on the original intended graduation date, rather than hoping for a delayed in-person ceremony later in the summer.

ODE officials said there is no guarantee the ban on large gatherings will be lifted by any certain date this summer. And ODE argued even if the ban is lifted, a longer delay for the ceremony may mean more students have other commitments and can’t participate.

Huffman, who is a physician, said he agrees with the need for social distancing, saying “what has been done so far has saved lives.” He suggested a statewide group of superintendents could publish best practices on having in-person or online graduation ceremonies.

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But he says it’s time for schools and families to have local control on how to implement state guidance, especially after current seniors lost sports seasons, prom and other traditions.

“Graduation is a celebration for students to share with their classmates, many of whom have spent the past 12 years bonding together,” he wrote. “For many students, graduation is the last time they will see the majority of their classmates.”

The Air Force Academy held its graduation 10 days ago in Colorado Springs, with 967 cadets sitting in chairs spaced eight feet apart on a grassy field. There were speakers, including vice president Mike Pence, but no spectators and no marching to a stage to receive a diploma.

ODE expressed concerns with enforcing social distancing at in-person graduations, “as these events often are highly emotional, invoking natural physical responses (such as high fives and hugs).”

A recent gathering of Beavercreek High School seniors fit that profile, as the students planned to stay separate, in or on their cars, but that deteriorated as more and more students arrived, with many ignoring social distancing.

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