COVID commencement tests schools’ flexibility

Oswego High School graduates, seen above at the 2017 commencement ceremonies at the Marano Campus Center at SUNY Oswego, will gather this year in groups of 150 at the Oswego Middle School Stadium. The effort to properly honor seniors whose final year in high school was been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic has been both a challenge and opportunity for local districts.

OSWEGO — Oswego County schools continue to adapt plans for their graduation ceremonies after Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave the green light this week for outdoor commencements of up to 150 people.

Cuomo’s May 1 decision to keep schools shut to students for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year put districts in a “significantly challenging” position, according to local officials, forcing educators and administrators to confront a previously unthinkable reality.  

“We have worked tirelessly to respond to this crisis thoughtfully, responsibly and always with the best interest and health and safety of our students in mind,” said Dr. Dean Goewey, superintendent of the Oswego City School District. “Administrators and teachers worked together to develop unique and responsive instructional platforms to support student learning from home. Teachers, principals and support staff created videos, delivered meals, called on families and worked together to create a school community that focused on kids and families.”

Districts are now looking toward the next, and for some students, final step in their high school careers.

“Our interest has always been to collaboratively create a graduation that was responsive to our students and would provide a memorable milestone in the lives of our seniors and their families,” Goewey said.

Working with the senior class and its advisers, the district will hold ceremonies on Saturday, June 27 at Oswego Middle School Stadium.

“This graduation will be different in many ways but will be a unique, family-focused graduation including music, a procession, welcoming comments, diploma presentation and photos,” Goewey said.

Final planning and logistical details are still being worked out, but informational letters to families of graduates are expected to hit mailboxes within the next few days. The district will also produce a commemorative video of the event, celebrating the Class of 2020.

Goewey urged families to roll with the punches during this unprecedented time.

“I understand that there are strong opinions about graduation options. I also know that regardless of what decision is made, many will be happy and some will be critical or disappointed,” Goewey said in a recorded phone message to OHS families. “All I ever wanted was a graduation that was dignified, inclusive, memorable and most importantly, safe!”

The Fulton City School District is allowing students to choose between a drive-up graduation ceremony and one of its small outdoor ceremonies, while the Hannibal Central School District is continuing with its plans for students to book individual appointments to receive their diploma before a parade at Oswego Speedway. The Mexico Academy and Central School District plans to hold five small-group ceremonies.

In Fulton, the plan finalized last week was to hold a drive-up graduation ceremony on June 20, but a group of stakeholders met after the governor’s executive order was signed to come up with alternative plans.

FCSD students can still do the drive-up ceremony, FCSD Superintendent Pulvino said, or now choose to take part in one of the smaller outdoor ceremonies on June 26 or 27.

Pulvino said the school wasn’t sure how many ceremonies would be held June 26 or 27, since they were still getting a count on which one the 216 students wanted to participate in.

Students can bring up to two carloads of people — who must remain in their cars — to the drive-up ceremony, or get two tickets to the outdoor ceremony.

“One-fifty sounds so big, but it’s really not,” Pulvino said, pointing out the count needs to include staff and supervisors. “We’re going to do multiple ceremonies on Friday and Saturday. … If you want it that way, it’s two tickets. It’s a ticketed event.”

In Mexico, the plan is for all the seniors to meet during the morning of Friday, June 26, on the school’s field for the last time, where they’ll hear speeches from the superintendent, valedictorian, salutatorian and chosen speakers. From there, they’ll receive instructions on five mini ceremonies held for friends and family.

At 1 p.m., the smaller ceremonies will begin with 30 graduates and four guests per-grad in each group. All mini ceremonies, as well as the speeches from that morning, will be recorded and streamed online.

“Even though this may not be what we had hoped for, we felt this was a way to allow our students to put some closure to their high school experience, allow our families to honor and celebrate our graduates and to maintain some of our great traditions we have surrounding graduation here at MACS,” Mexico High School Principal Ryan Lanigan said on the school’s Facebook page. “Our priority is to make sure put students first, and we feel like we’ve done the best we can under the circumstances to do that.”

While some of the changes they’ve had to endure since the COVID-19 pandemic hit central New York have been frustrating, MACS Superintendent Sean Bruno has seen the community come together through adversity.

“The process has been very challenging but it’s also been very rewarding when you see how educators, students and families have come together to create the most successful outcome as possible considering the circumstances,” Bruno said. “It’s been heartwarming.”

Hannibal is sticking with the plan it had before the executive order was put into place.

The 115 seniors will make individual appointments to receive their diplomas and have their photos taken on Monday, June 22. The next day there will be a parade at Oswego Speedway with each student being introduced over the public address system. Any student unable to participate will receive a visit from school officials the next day with their diploma.

“Two weeks ago we were on different pages and we worked through it to provide multiple opportunities, and I think that has alleviated a lot of the stress,” Staats said. “We truly want to celebrate the graduates. Not only is it a highlight for the student and their family, but it’s also a highlight for us. That’s the last time we can look someone in the eye and shake their hand as a student. It’s a very sentimental day for a lot of us. It’s going to be tough this year not being able to shake hands.”

While the governor’s executive order may help some districts, Staats pointed out most senior classes are too large for a full traditional ceremony to occur.

“This executive order does not help many districts achieve the goal of bringing their entire classes together,” Staats said. “If I was just to bring my graduates in, for example, I’d have over 100 students. That would mean that we come together for an outside function with no witnesses, no family members to help celebrate those students.”

Rep. John Katko, R-Camillus, applauded the governor’s decision to allow outdoor graduation ceremonies in central New York, but wanted to see more guidance for larger schools.

“While I welcome this important announcement, I believe the governor must now issue additional guidance and provide flexibility for larger schools to ensure all local graduates are able to commemorate this important occasion,” Katko said in a statement. “The Class of 2020 has persevered through unprecedented challenges and deserves to properly celebrate this momentous accomplishment alongside family and friends while adhering to important public health guidance.”

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