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Graduation plans still in the air as districts approach end of school year

Graduation plans still in the air as districts approach end of school year

Districts plan drive-in, drive-thru and virtual ceremonies as they watch for any official guidance on what will and won't be allowed
Graduation plans still in the air as districts approach end of school year
Volunteer and mother Lisa Maslak,of Saratoga Springs, gathers a seniors cap and gown at Saratoga Springs High School Wednesday
Photographer: Erica Miller/Staff Photographer

CAPITAL REGION -- High school graduation ceremonies across the Capital Region are still in flux as school districts plan for events at drive-in theaters, virtual ceremonies and other events without fully understanding just what will be allowed.

Many school districts are still non-committal about plans, noting committees set up to plan graduations during the pandemic are still exploring multiple options, even as some of those districts have booked dates at local drive-in theaters.

And all districts are continuing to watch for updated state guidance on whether in-person ceremonies will be allowed over the summer. In the meantime, districts have made plans – and backup plans – to honor their graduates next month.

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“Trying to hit a moving target is a challenge,” Mohonasen High School Principal Craig Chandler said Thursday. “Without very clear and explicit instruction from the state, we are doing the best we can to come up with something that will be meaningful and memorable.”

Mohonasen has set up plans to schedule students and their families to arrive at the school next month to “walk” through the school auditorium, receive their diploma in an intimate setting and contribute to a special Class of 2020 mural that will be displayed outside the school. The students will be scheduled “down to the minute,” Chandler said, giving each of the school’s 220 graduating seniors a chance to get their diploma with their family close by. The district plans to record each student and put together a video that could be used at an in-person event slated for later in the month.

Mohonasen booked the Jericho Drive-In near Glenmont for a June 25 ceremony, where families can come out for a live event. Chandler said the logistics of that event are still flexible, with school leaders hoping to allow students to walk the stage there as well but planning for restrictions that will bar students from walking a stage. He said the June 25 program would include live speeches and video of seniors compiled ahead of time. Mohonasen has a committee of about 30 students, parents, teachers and other staff to make plans for graduation and other events honoring the senior class.

“We’ve tried to create this plan that gives us the ability to shift and become less restrictive or more restrictive depending on any new executive order or regulation we are under at the time,” he said.

Drive-in movie theaters, which were allowed to open under Phase 1 of the state’s regional reopening plans, have emerged as venues for school districts looking for a place to convene their graduates and families – if still at a distance and through car windows. Districts around the region have booked slots at drive-ins in Malta, Glenmont and Greenville.

Ed Caro, owner of the Malta Drive-In, counted just over a half-dozen districts that have reserved the theater space next month, beginning with the small, private Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs on June 8. Niskayuna, Saratoga Springs, Burnt Hills and Shaker high schools have all also reserved the space, some tentatively, Caro said. The events will be limited to 400 cars, so some of the schools would have to spread ceremonies over two nights, he said.

“Everything about this situation is less than ideal,” Caro said. “I know they would rather have their first plan. You think about high school graduation and people hugging, that’s not going to happen now, but at least this is some kind of option.”

Meanwhile, state lawmakers this week urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo to allow school districts to host in-person outdoors events this summer, noting that the New Jersey governor took a similar action earlier this week. They called on Cuomo to outline guidance that would allow schools to hold in-person graduation ceremonies sometime in July.

“Now, as the state moves forward on reopening and residents embrace new circumstances regarding social gatherings, we believe New York state can find a way to allow our high school seniors to participate in graduation ceremonies outdoors and in-person,” the state senators wrote in a letter Wednesday.

Districts are hoping that additional guidance comes soon. Even in places where school leaders have outlined detailed graduation plans, those plans are accompanied by warnings of caution that things could be changed.

“All information on this page is subject to change and no ideas or statements are permanent plans as we are still awaiting final guidance from the state of New York on the end of year school events,” Schalmont Central School District officials warned at the top the district’s “2020 graduation planning page.”

In Schalmont, students were invited to walk the auditorium stage this week – after getting their temperature taken and while wearing face masks – with no parents or family members in attendance. The school then plans to conduct a “drive-thru graduation” later in June, giving students and families a chance to participate in a parade and drive up to a stage, where the student can get out of the car and go across a stage. The event will be recorded and later released in a digital version. The school also reserved the Jericho theater to show the recording in late-July and noted if allowed it will make more plans for other senior events over the summer.

Duanesburg is also making plans for a multi-phase graduation celebration, beginning with a June 11 parade of high school teachers and administrators traveling to students’ homes to drop off their caps, gowns and goodie bags. On June 18, the school plans to hold a “drive-thru” ceremony at the school campus to give students a chance to receive their diploma, followed by the release of a recording recognizing each graduate and including traditional student speeches.

As they plan ceremonies, school and district leaders are grappling with unclear state guidelines and the wants and desires of students and parents. Some county health leaders, including in Montgomery and Schoharie counties, have informed district leaders that in-person graduation ceremonies are not allowed under current rules.

Schoharie Central School District, for instance, is slated to hold a June 27 ceremony at the Greenville Drive-In about 40 minutes southeast of Schoharie. The district surveyed students  --  “They clearly have no interest in a virtual ceremony,” the superintendent said of the survey results – and landed on the drive-thru option, hoping it would satisfy students and satisfy the demands of health officials.

With a backup date for August, the district, like others across the region, is now counting down the days and watching for any new formal regulation, declaration or proclamation to which they would have to adapt.

“Schoharie is watching closely to determine if our plan to use a drive-in theater on June 27 remains a viable option,” Schoharie Superintendent David Blanchard said this week.

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