Finding a Way: Graduation Plans in Limbo for Now As State Regs Tighter than Expected

The Everett Public Schools will meet with the City’s Health Department to determine if plans for a drive-thru graduation can go forward in the methods that had been planned since two weeks ago – as regulations from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) released last week were a little more strict than expected.

Supt. Priya Tahiliani said they had a tremendous graduation planned for June 6 at the Encore parking lots on Lower Broadway, but the guidelines released on May 21 have put that into question. There is the ability to go forward if the City’s Health Department feels plans are safe, but that is to be discussed at a meeting this week – with a decision expected by late Wednesday (May 27).

“It’s a delicate balance between keeping students safe and letting students celebrate,” she said. “Last Thursday, DESE released its regulations and they were far more stringent. They are suggesting people stay in their cars where we were going to have three stages and students could walk across it individually so families could take pictures and we would have photo booths with pictures on the spot…We were going to have that happening, but regulations are much more stringent. Many superintendents have already planned these types of graduations and this is difficult for everyone.

“We thought we had the plan all set, but…we need to take these guidelines into account and really think this through,” she continued.

Graduation was supposed to be a grand affair this year, in a socially distant way, and was in place on June 6 because 14 members of the class are leaving for the military. They are required to quarantine for 14 days before leaving, so the latest the district could plan anything was early June.

The meeting with the Board of Health is happening very soon, and it will include a thorough review of the guidelines from DESE, the City’s restrictions, and the plans detailed by the schools. There could be some tweaks, or maybe it will be allowed. It could also have to be postponed completely if it doesn’t match up in a big way and is considered too risky.

A decision is expected by Wednesday evening.

Public Health Nurse Sabrina Firicano said they will look at the guidelines and figure out a balance of safety and celebration.

“I think it really has to be, in regards to social distancing, if people stay in their cars, that’s ideal,” she said. “I think that if they’re in the car, they’re probably in there only with immediate family. Having them wear masks might be different than many planned. If they’re thinking of a drive-thru or something like that, it could potentially be done, but we have to look at all the guidelines. We are looking at guidelines from the state that look different from what the high school planned. If we all work together, I think we can find a way to celebrate the students and do so in the safest way possible.”

The same issues have been playing out in other communities near and far. Chelsea High has gone back and forth with different forms of graduation, and a school in Atlanta caused a major community setback due to the fact that a drive-in graduation ended up causing a serious outbreak of cases.

“It is hard to keep up the distancing, but everything we’re seeing confirms the trends that it could come back in the fall,” she said. “We could come back in the fall and have another interruption. We may be getting more relaxed, but maybe we shouldn’t be. I think it’s more exhaustion than curve flattening.”

That is one reason they steered away from a drive-in graduation – which was floated as an idea initially last month. School leaders felt they couldn’t control people once they arrived at such an event. Many people with the best intentions might arrive, see people they know and get out of their cars to greet them quickly. There’s no guaranteeing such an event couldn’t get out of hand, which is why they scaled back to the current plan – which went a bit beyond what the state had wanted.

Tahiliani said they do have the option of having an in-person graduation in August, but there is no guarantee that could happen. If there is a setback, and nothing has happened, they could have to resort to a drive-thru graduation again – or worse yet – having nothing at all. Additionally, in August, students leaving for the military couldn’t participate, and there is generally expected to be lower participation the further into the summer the date goes.

“We have all the plans in place if it does get approved,” she said. “It’s not going to be what people would have expected from a typical graduation, but we were going to make it spectacular. We decided this was going to be a unique graduation for a unique year…We were trying to make it an event. It doesn’t sound exciting I know. However, if we can do it, I think people will be surprised by what it’s really like.”

Tahiliani said they had planned for extensive flowers, a massive balloon arch, music and special guests – as well as free yearbooks later in the summer. A decision on whether it is a-go will come late Wednesday, once again.

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