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Area schools disappointed after state says graduations can only occur online or in cars – with windows rolled up

The Foley family wave to their teachers on Hallett Street Street during a drive-by parade sponsored by the Medical Lake Middle School’s staff on Wednesday. The state Department of Health decided Thursday districts must hold graduations either in cars or online. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s a virtual certainty that the high school class of 2020 will have a safe and healthy graduation day.

But it may not be much fun.

Under state Department of Health rules issued Thursday, outdoor graduation ceremonies will feel more like a drive-in movie, except that you probably won’t be allowed to open your windows.

And try not to go to the bathroom.

Thursday’s edict – which left local educators surprised and disappointed – leaves districts with two options: a drive-by in the family car or some type of virtual ceremony.

Two months into the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing requirements, the class of 2020 didn’t expect the state to allow group hugs on the floor of the Spokane Arena.

They certainly didn’t expect this.

“We’ve been hopeful that we could do something meaningful for our seniors, but I just don’t think driving by in a car and waving accomplishes that,” said West Valley Superintendent Gene Sementi.

“This certainly isn’t very encouraging,” said Sementi, echoing the disappointment of district officials throughout Spokane County. “Our students and parents overwhelmingly wanted some sort of outdoor ceremony.”

That was true at most districts, many of which were deep into planning even as they awaited guidance from the state. Now, with graduation day only four weeks away, they must regroup.

The regrouping already has begun at Spokane Public Schools, which was told on Tuesday that Gov. Jay Inslee refused the district’s request to hold ceremonies at Albi Stadium.

Now it’s moving toward some version of a virtual ceremony.

“That’s what we have left,” said Shawn Jordan, the district’s director of secondary education.

Jordan said the state guidelines “reinforce the plan our schools have been discussing in the last 48 hours” since the Albi proposal was rebuffed.

“The guidance specifies it is not known when large-scale in-person events will be able to be safely held,” Jordan said. “This uncertainty is the reason we are moving forward with one of the acceptable models listed, a graduation video.”

Some districts are going back to the drawing board for the third time.

Cheney and Medical Lake districts typically hold graduation on back-to-back nights at Eastern Washington University’s Reese Court.

With that option ruled out by the pandemic, Plan B was to hold an outdoor ceremony, mostly in vehicles, in the parking lot behind the EWU football stadium.

EWU was forced to decline, leaving the high schools to pursue Plan C: a drive-in ceremony at another parking lot that would include a few speeches and diploma presentations with masks and social distancing protocols.

Students would have been able to watch from their cars, with windows down regardless of the weather.

Now that option also is out the window.

After Thursday’s order, Cheney and Medical Lake are looking at to Plan D.

“I really thought we could do this with their windows rolled down,” said Medical Lake Superintendent Tim Ames, whose staff had been working on the drive-in model for “three to four weeks.”

In the meantime, Medical Lake had sent its proposal to the governor’s office last month, with no reply until Thursday’s statewide order.

“That was our frustration,” Ames said. “We’re going to have to read thoroughly through this.”

Thursday’s guidelines, which were sent to all 295 districts in the state, began with a statement from the Department of Health explaining the rules are “in accordance with Governor Inslee’s emergency proclamation that prohibits large gatherings using a Safe Start Washington approach.”

The document leaves decisions to host “safe and socially distanced graduation ceremonies at the discretion of local school boards and superintendents, as long as they do not contravene the Governor’s prohibitions on holding gatherings in each of the time phases in the Safe Start plan.”

For Spokane County, that assumes it will move to at least Phase 2 by next month. If not, “we’d better be looking at another backup plan,” Cheney Superintendent Robert Roettger said.

Same story at Central Valley, which had formulated plans for limited-attendance live ceremonies at the district’s two football stadiums.

“We are evaluating the guidelines in relation to the plans we had outlined with our families,” communications director Marla Nunberg said. “We will further engage with our families as we finalize a graduation plan.”

Superintendents at Mead, East Valley, Freeman and Riverside either did not respond to requests for comments or were unavailable.

If Spokane County reaches Phase 2, state guidelines address seven options:

    Virtual ceremony: Commencement speakers and awards acknowledgments would be viewed from the graduates’ homes.

    Video: Graduates would record and submit individual videos or pictures with short messages to their graduating classmates, combined into a graduation video.

    Social media highlight: Graduates would be honored on social media with hashtags that allow for family, friends and community members to congratulate individual students, should they agree to participate.

    Gallery drive: Schools may post large signs with pictures and names of graduates in a specified location and allow people to drive by these signs slowly at will or at specified times. All must remain in their cars.

    Drive-thru: Students and immediate family members staying at home together would arrive in waves and leave after their individual recognition. Students must remain in the car and should be in the passenger seat. The school may arrange to call the student’s name over an outdoor audio system and/or have a photo taken of students as they go by.

    Drive-in: Only students and their immediate family members who are staying at home together and who are not sick, must arrive in the same vehicle and remain inside for the entire ceremony. Windows, sunroofs and convertible tops must remain closed during the entire ceremony unless the vehicle is parked more than 6 feet from any other vehicle. However, for larger schools, it may prove impossible to find a parking lot large enough to keep vehicles at least 6 feet apart. No restroom use except in an emergency.

    Recorded or livestreamed individualized ceremony at school: Individual students may come to the school at prearranged times to walk across a stage in their cap and gown and have a photo/video taken. This may also be coordinated with time for students to pick up any personal belongings at the school. Students must walk across a stage or area and pose for a picture individually. No more than five students may wait in the same area at any one time.