High schools are either going online with graduations now or postponing ceremonies until later this summer in hopes of safer health conditions.

High schools offer graduates some pomp amid trying circumstances

Some Georgia high schools plan to hold graduations later this month and into June, but are curtailing how many family members can attend to maintain mandated social distancing.

The four-tickets limit most schools have imposed is fueling complaints on district Facebook pages where parents lament grandparents won’t get to attend.

But the governor’s office says Meemaw and PawPaw would be safer at home than at a graduation ceremony anyway. 

In fact, the governor would be happier if everyone stayed at home, at least while Georgia is still requiring social distancing and discouraging large events to combat COVID-19.

“We are encouraging those ceremonies not to happen,” said Cody Hall, spokesman for Gov. Brian Kemp. “The best options for graduations are remote, online or postponing them until later in the year.” 

In an executive order this week, Kemp extended sheltering-in-place mandates for Georgians 65 and older and the medically fragile through June 12. “So grandma and grandpa probably wouldn’t be able to come to a high school graduation,” Hall said. 

The executive order also bans gatherings of more than 10 people unless there’s a minimum six feet between individuals, said Hall, adding the governor’s order carries the force of law and local officers at a graduation ceremony would be able and expected to enforce it. 

Chattooga High School Class of 2020
Photo: Chattooga County School District

Chattooga High School was planning to hold its graduation on May 29, but pushed it back this week after Kemp updated his executive order, announcing:

Due to Governor Kemp’s Executive order released May 12, 2020, the Chattooga High School Graduation Ceremony is being postponed to June 19th at 8 p.m., in the CHS Stadium. The CHS Prom that was rescheduled for May 23rd is cancelled. We apologize for any inconvenience but as a local agency we must remain compliant with all mandates. 

However, other districts are still planning graduations the last weekend of May, including the Columbia County School District, which will hold outdoor graduations for its high schools May 29 and May 30 at Evans Towne Center Park in Evans, Ga.

The district originally planned to hold indoor ceremonies in late July, but rescheduled this week due to increased restrictions and costs at the original venue. The district is requiring face coverings and four guests per student. Attendees will have to bring their own seats, and family groups must be six feet away from others.

This announcement of the  date change prompted nearly 600 comments on the district’s Facebook page, divided among parents who preferred July and those delighted with May. The alternating frustration and relief in the comments provide a glimpse of challenges facing Georgia districts attempting to preserve at least one tradition for the class of 2020. Those teen lost many of their senior year rites of passage and rituals to the pandemic. 

Schools are designing plans around a deadly pandemic without modern precedent and relying on the precognition of health officials to guide those plans.

With guidance from the county health department, Paulding County School District this week announced that its high schools will hold graduations on June 19 and 20. 

The announcement to families about the graduation protocols said:

Due to the potentially large crowds expected and the social distancing requirements that will be enforced, it is likely that high schools may divide students among two or more ceremonies to ensure that family members are accommodated.

And among the regulations that Paulding will impose: 

Students and spectators will be staggered/checkerboarded by 6 feet on all sides. 

Each student will have four tickets for family/friends. Family Units (for example children or those who have been isolated together) can be closer than 6 feet. 

No one will be allowed to enter the place of graduation until one hour prior to the ceremony. 

No handshaking will occur during the ceremony or presentation of diplomas. 

No family/friends will be allowed on the field after graduation. 

It is highly recommended that all spectators wear a mask that covers their mouth and nose. 

While there is a wide variance in graduation models around the country, most states with high rates of infections are resorting to virtual ceremonies.  Minnesota just banned large-scale high school graduation ceremonies to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and encouraged schools to hold online ceremonies. Hard-hit New Jersey is mandating virtual ceremonies, as is New York City. 

Some schools are moving graduations to drive-in movie theaters where students and families will sit in cars and watch screen tributes, performances and speeches. 

The Texas Education Agency said ceremonies couldn’t be held indoors, which led the Arlington district to work with the Dallas Cowboys to hold separate ceremonies for its seven high schools at the 80,000-seat AT&T Stadium beginning in June. (The retractable roof of the stadium will be open.)

Many high schools in Alabama decided to hold ceremonies after the state relaxed its rules last week and allowed large gatherings as long as people from different households heed the six-foot distance. 

Central High in Phenix City, Al., is holding mini graduations for its seniors five nights this week on the school football field. Each night about 85 students receive their diplomas to accommodate social distancing. The valedictorian agreed to give her speech at each of the ceremonies.

Some metro schools are opting for virtual graduations now, but may hold in-person ceremonies later this summer or in the fall. After consulting with families of its 300 graduates, Buford High School found little enthusiasm for a virtual event, so it plans a traditional ceremony in late July. 

And schools are finding other ways to recognize grads. Kell High School hosted Class of 2020 Bright Future Parade Wednesday night on its northeast Cobb . High school seniors rode in their own decorated and illuminated vehicles to cheers.

Typical graduations feature a lot of hooting and hollering, which could increase the risk of infection since the virus is transmitted by respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. 

Infections soared after a choir in the state of Washington held rehearsals on March 2 and March 10. The CDC found 87% of the singers at the March 10 rehearsal developed Covid-19. 

The choir had a high percentage of members considered vulnerable to the coronavirus. While only 32% of the singers had underlying health conditions, the median age was 69, according to the CDC. In addition, choir members were not six feet apart, although evidence suggests droplets from the mouth can travel well beyond six feet when people sing. 

“Yelling, shouting and singing are not activities we are encouraging,” said Hall, citing the danger of transmission under those conditions, especially at indoor graduation ceremonies. 

Is your district hoping to hold a traditional graduation? If so, when and where? And is it likely the event can be held within Georgia’s six-foot social distancing mandate?

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.