High school commencement is an extraordinary milestone in any year. A once-in-a-lifetime transition from childhood to young adulthood.
But it’s especially poignant for the class of 2021 after a final year marred by pandemic education, stress and isolation. Most of these young people already have had to forgo senior-year traditions like dances, events and simply strutting down school hallways with friends.
In the absence of specific guidance, school districts have been puzzling over how to hold safe end-of-year celebrations. New public-health guidelines, released Monday, offer clarity but shoehorn these unique ceremonies into existing guidelines for miscellaneous venues and outdoor spectator events.
State leaders should add a third option: Allowing schools to work with local public-health departments on creative and safe solutions that allow communities to figuratively wrap themselves around new graduates who have sacrificed and suffered under a year of social distancing
Phase 3 of the state’s Roadmap to Recovery allows for up to 400 people to attend indoor events if those facilities are filled at no more than 50% capacity and public-health protocols are enforced. The new guidance clarifies that graduates should not be counted in capacity restrictions. That’s important, as there are dozens of high schools statewide and in the Puget Sound Region where the graduating class itself exceeds the limit, never mind the proud parents, siblings, grandparents and others who want to share those graduates’ special day
Guidance for “spectator events” at outdoor facilities with fixed seating allows for up to 9,000 people or 25% capacity, whichever is lower, but these facilities are limited. That will make it tough for schools that have traditionally held commencement on school grounds or in other smaller venues to find an ample space
These guidelines only apply if counties’ COVID-19 caseloads remain low enough to stay at Phase 3 — a determination that will be revisited every three weeks.
Some districts, like Seattle Public Schools, are planning for both possibilities. In a memo last month to school board members, Superintendent Denise Juneau wrote that the district has reserved Memorial Stadium in case in-person ceremonies are permitted. A team is also taking steps to secure a vendor for virtual graduations, if that’s the only choice. But other districts will not be so lucky. Those districts that are unable to find a venue should have a chance to work with health officials to find creative solutions. Facilities owners, administrators and other stakeholders should work together to ensure no class of graduates misses out.
Commencement this year will necessarily diverge from pre-pandemic traditions, but as they close the books on this extraordinary chapter, Washington’s graduating seniors and their families deserve more than a wave goodbye on Zoom