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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

SPS graduation rules tough on some graduates, families

The high school classes of 2021 will be graduating at the U.S. Pavilion in Riverfront Park. While the venue draws praise, a restriction of two guests per graduate because of COVID restrictions has upset families and students.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

High school graduation is still six weeks away, but some students and their families are already feeling emotional.

They are also frustrated over plans recently finalized by Spokane Public Schools that limit each graduate to two guests because of social-distancing rules.

Asked to share her thoughts about being a senior in the pandemic year, Sophie Winterroth did just that during a virtual school board meeting Wednesday night.

A senior at Lewis and Clark High School and a student adviser to the board of directors, Winterroth told it like it is: that her parents are divorced and she has “two sets of parents who would love to be there for me.”

Last week, the district announced plans to hold commencement on the weekend of June 12-13 at the U.S. Pavilion at Riverfront Park.

The setting is spectacular and gives the graduates a chance to share their big moments with one another – but not with most of their extended families.

Winterroth spoke for countless other seniors with divorced parents and more with siblings and extended family who won’t be able to attend in person.

“How are you going to manage that?” she asked.

After a few seconds of awkward silence, Superintendent Adam Swinyard tried to commiserate.

“Our wish is that we could have anyone who wishes to be able to come,” Swinyard said.

Shawn Jordan, the district’s director of public schools, took it from there. He explained that crowd size is limited by guidelines from the Spokane Regional Health District, and for some of the larger graduating classes “it’s even more difficult and challenging.”

As Spokane and other large districts learned last year, bigger isn’t better when it comes to commencement.

While some smaller schools were able to socially distance in a parking lot, larger ones were forced to hold individual ceremonies.

Spokane found an elegant solution: drive-up ceremonies. At each school, graduates emerged from their sweet ride, most of them filled to capacity with loved ones who leaned out of their cars snapping pictures and getting closer to the action than they could have hoped at the Spokane Arena.

Marybeth Smith, principal at Lewis and Clark, said at the time it was better than expected.

“There’s just something so special about watching families love on their kids all up-close and personal like we got to do,” she said last spring following ceremonies at Hart Field.

“I tell you, it was about as much fun as I’ve had as a principal,” Smith said.

Other principals agreed, especially after receiving almost 100% positive feedback from families.

However, the drive-through option kept the graduates apart from each other. According to Jordan, most of the class of 2021 wants to enjoy that last hurrah.

To soften the blow for families, all ceremonies will be livestreamed by KSPS and aired by Comcast Channel 17 (live and repeated).

Jordan said the district also is exploring the idea of installing extra-large screens in Riverfront Park, which would allow families to reunite soon after commencement. Also, Jordan said that crowd sizes wouldn’t be impacted should Spokane County be pushed back to Phase 2.

“It’s certainly not perfect, and you’re highlighting one of the imperfections,” Jordan told Winterroth.

The Pavilion setting will be memorable but limiting. That same weekend, Central Valley and University high schools are scheduled to hold commencement at their football stadiums, with four guests allowed per student.

“But for you to be able to be with your classmates, walk across the stage, have two of your family members be there in the audience, and the others watch on livestream – this is the best we have for our current situation,” Jordan said.