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School boards work with public health and safety officials on graduation plans

School boards work with public health and safety officials on graduation plans

From drive-in ceremonies to car parades in the park, school officials must consult with local health, fire and police officials when planning high school graduation ceremonies next month.

Local school officials are putting the finishing touches on plans that would allow students to celebrate while preventing the spread of COVID-19. After a series of conference calls with state education officials, Wallingford School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo issued a notice to district parents Sunday evening outlining the graduation restrictions.

“We did receive written guidance from the Commissioner of Education on Thursday and through a conference call on Friday,” Menzo wrote. “In that guidance, group gatherings of more than five people are not permitted under the Governor’s Executive Order 7X.”

In a conference call with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education Friday, State Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona and Dr. Richard Melchreit — from the state Department of Public Health’s Infectious Disease Section — were asked about the potential for in-person graduations later in June and over the summer.

“Based on this information, all proposed plans must be reviewed collaboratively with local officials in the health, fire, and police departments,” Menzo wrote. “We have been meeting with them to discuss alternatives we have received from students and parents. As each scenario is reviewed, public health and safety guidelines are applied to determine the viability ... Again, each decision must honor the Executive Orders … We are not taking this lightly, and we do appreciate the many volunteers who are willing to support whatever is decided.”

The rules governing high school graduations also hold for elementary and middle school graduations, Menzo said.

Melchreit told officials that graduation ceremonies won’t return to “normal” until a vaccine is available, which is not expected this year and might not be available next year.

A virtual graduation with students and families connected via streaming software is the safest option, Melchreit said. One hybrid option includes students parked in cars who get out only to walk to a stage where they are greeted by five or fewer mask-wearing officials positioned six feet apart. A photographer, more than six feet away, can take pictures of the graduates to avoid overcrowding at the stage area. Valedictorian and other speeches could be recorded ahead of time and viewed on a large screen during the ceremony. Diplomas could be mailed instead of handed out onstage.

“This is not your typical normal graduation,” Melchreit told school board members. “Under Executive Order 7X, social gatherings are no more than five people. The more people in proximity, the more you’re increasing the chance of passing the virus.”

Melchreit also advised officials to track ceremonies and gatherings in the event there are outbreaks in the weeks following graduations.

In Meriden, principals and advisors at Platt and Maloney high schools have worked with students and families on potential ideas for ceremonies. Some of these included a car parade through Hubbard Park, a drive-in program and an all-virtual graduation. Board of Education President Robert Kosienski Jr. said final plans will be announced in the next several days.

Graduation is currently scheduled for June 12.

School officials in Southington and Cheshire are surveying students and parents to gauge their preference on different options, which include virtual ceremonies, drive-thru events and traditional celebrations that would take place in early August.

Southington High School’s traditional ceremony was to take place on the high school football field June 16, said School Superintendent Tim Connellan. Now, officials are looking at convening a large drive-thru ceremony at the Farmington Polo Grounds. Officials had also looked at possibly having a traditional ceremony in early August. But the constantly fluctuating situation remains too uncertain for school officials to be able to guarantee an in-person event in a few months.

The polo grounds seems like a event that officials could pull off.

“It’s fairly large, a student and their family would drive there. We could do big speeches,” Connellan said.

Students and their families would stay in their cars for the ceremony, with students exiting the vehicles only to turn their tassles.

Staff reporter Michael Gagne contributed to this story.

mgodin@record-journal.com203-317-2255Twitter: @Cconnbiz

"We are not taking this lightly, and we do appreciate the many volunteers who are willing to support whatever is decided. We appreciate the support and genuine concern shared by so many in the community for the Class of 2020."

-Salvatore Menzo