School districts are starting to outline plans for proms and graduation ceremonies this spring, even as they call on state officials to offer school-specific guidelines to work from.
Dozens of superintendents across the region on Wednesday sent a joint letter to state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker asking for new guidelines that specifically address end-of-year school events like proms and graduation ceremonies.
“While schools are eager to commemorate milestone events and help students celebrate in a safe manner, we will not jeopardize our students’ or the public’s health in doing so,” the superintendents wrote in a joint letter from the Capital Region and Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex BOCES districts. “Guidance that directly addresses these events is critical.”
State Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, also echoed those calls writing a letter of his own to Zucker on Friday. Calling graduation ceremonies an important “rite of passage,” Tedisco said district officials need the guidance sooner rather than later so they can make plans now. He called on the health department to issue the new guidance no later than April 15.
“Many schools have contacted my office and [have] been very vocal about the need for updated and complete guidance so they can faithfully hold these important events over the next few months in the upcoming graduation seasons,” Tedisco wrote in the letter.
It’s not clear, though, when or if state officials will be forthcoming with the guidance school leaders seek. Bob Lowry, who tracks state policy for the state Council of School Superintendents, said the organization regularly gets questions about the lack of specific guidance and that it has asked state health officials to produce those guidelines.
“We have raised it with the health department, it is a concern and it comes up routinely with our members,” Lowry said Friday. He said he didn’t know if state officials plan to release new guidance for schools.
In response to questions about whether the Department of Health planned to provide guidance specific to spring school events, spokesperson Erin Silk said the department was aware of the demand for new guidance but highlighted existing guidelines.
“We understand the need and are working to advise consistent with existing guidance and capacities,” Silk said in the statement.
Meanwhile, district leaders have started to plot out plans for events as the school year comes to a close over the next three months. Districts are looking to outdoor events or resurrecting modified event plans from last spring as they work under existing social gathering guidelines that apply broadly across the state, not just for schools. Larger districts have a harder time adapting to the attendance limits.
“(Fonda-Fultonville Central School) is excited to celebrate these milestones and rites of passage for our students,” Fonda-Fultonville spokesperson Heather Nellis said. “Like most circumstances during the pandemic, planning will remain fluid to ensure that our events align with our students’ wishes, and are conducted safely in accordance with the most current health and safety guidelines.”
Nellis said the junior class decided to postpone its prom until next year. (The school historically has not hosted a senior prom.) And the school is preparing to host an outdoor commencement ceremony if necessary.
The Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake school district is planning an outdoor May 14 prom at the Saratoga Hall of Springs, district spokesperson Tara Mitchell said. Graduation plans are still in the works, she said.
Multiple districts said they are looking to outdoor events for either graduation, prom or both. Greater Amsterdam School District spokesperson John Noetzel said the district’s “first choice” is to host a June 25 or June 26 ceremony at the district’s new turf field at the middle school. He said they also hoped to host a prom in some form for juniors and seniors, but he cautioned none of the plans were finalized.
“Nothing is firmed up due to COVID restraints and other issues,” Noetzel said.
Last spring, as state and school district leaders scrambled to respond to new pandemic precautions, state officials ultimately issued guidance allowing schools to host socially-distanced graduation ceremonies of up to 150 people and also permitted ceremonies held at drive-in theaters around the state. Many districts hosted events where students on a staggered schedule showed up to receive their diploma in a small ceremony.
Current social gathering guidelines allow events to host up to 100 people indoors and up to 200 people outdoors; those numbers go up to 150 indoors and 500 outdoors if testing is required. The guidelines, though, could very well change before late June, when most graduation ceremonies are scheduled.
“We will follow all applicable NYS DOH COVID regulations as well as school protocols,” Scotia-Glenville spokesperson Bob Hanlon said. “At this time we are limited to a group of 150 people indoors and there is a testing requirement for attendees.”
Hanlon said the district was planning an in-person commencement ceremony but did not have a venue specified yet. The district is also planning a junior formal May 21 and a senior gala in June, both to be held at Riverstone Manor under current venue guidelines.
Schenectady district spokesperson Karen Corona said the district is still working on the details of both prom and graduation. She said a “traditional prom” would not happen and that school leaders were working with students “to explore safe alternatives… that would serve to be memorable, special and celebratory.”
She said ideas for graduation range from a virtual event to an outdoor event but the discussions so far have been focused on “collecting ideas and exploring what is feasible and safe” and would meet health and safety requirements.
“There will be much deeper discussion following the spring recess with an eye on forming and announcing a plan in April,” Corona said.