Warwick scrambles to graduate the class of 2021

Strict state guidelines combined pandemic fatigue and low infection rates makes planning this year’s high school graduation ceremony even more complicated than 2020’s.

| 08 Jun 2021 | 03:06

A laundry list of Covid regulations put Warwick Valley Central School District between a rock and a hard place this graduation season.

“We initially announced we were going to do 3 or 4 graduations to be within the state regulations, and the community was pretty upset about that,” said superintendent David Leach. “The students and the families really wanted one ceremony.”

The district had multiple graduation ceremonies in 2020. But this year, the community is not willing to make so many sacrifices.

“I think now, there’s a lot of fatigue, plus you have infection rates that are very low...so this year there’s more frustration by the general public,” said Leach. “It puts school districts in a very difficult place because you have folks that are frustrated and are fatigued with Covid, and you have others who are still very concerned.”

Strict regulations

The New York State Department of Health’s “Updated Interim Guidance for End of Academic Year Celebrations,” states that events of all sizes must include social distancing, health screenings, face coverings, contact tracing, and controlled movement to avoiding congestion and foot traffic in common areas.

When you add approximately 300 graduates and two spectators per student, state regulations get tighter: the event venue, Warwick High School’s football field, would need to operate at 33% capacity.

In attempt to allow for one ceremony at the football field, Leach called the Orange County of Health to walk the event site. In consultation with the Department of Health, the solution to add extra seating, and seating sections that let vaccinated people sit closer together in one section, and unvaccinated individuals to be seated further apart in a another, was proposed.

“So we went out with a survey with that information, and overwhelmingly the families picked that option,” said Leach.

But, “in the meantime, as you can imagine, that solution is not a popular one with many.”

Major sporting events, such as Yankee games, have vaccinated seating sections. But the vaccinated vs. non-vaccinated seating solution for Warwick’s graduation sparked outrage within the community, resulting in a change.org petition with over 250 signatures. The petition site argues that separating spectators based on vaccination status is discrimination, and invades one’s right to privacy.

“The district understands that that’s not ideal. We’re not looking to segregate people based on vaccination status; that was the only solution provided to us by the health department,” said Leach.

Third time’s a charm

Now, with graduation just over two weeks away on June 26, the district is drafting up a new plan: to rent lots of extra seating to allow for enough social distancing between pairs of spectators.

“We want everyone to have an enjoyable day...we don’t want to test people, we don’t want to look at their vaccination cards. We’re not interested in that. We just want to have a safe graduation, and one where everyone feels good,” said Leach.

According to New York State guidelines, attendees need to show proof of a negative Covid test or immunization when capacity at outdoor graduation ceremonies exceeds 200 individuals.

“We’re looking to submit a plan that would not require us to do that, and we believe it is a plan that would be approved, and we’re working on it now,” he said.

“The class of 2021 deserves nothing less than a traditional, beautiful graduation. They’ve been through so much, and we need the state to work with us, collaboratively, so we can make that happen.”

“This year has been very problematic regarding graduations in New York State based on the regulations. It’s very upsetting to many people that they are being asked to show negative tests or show vaccination status, and that’s become a major distraction for school districts in New York State, including us. We’re very disappointed that the regulations have not been relaxed, and we’re disappointed that we continue to go out with different messages to the community based on either updates in regulations or different interpretations based on health officials. So it’s been very difficult, it’s been distracting, it’s been upsetting. But we’re very committed to doing one ceremony and doing it safely.”
-Warwick superintendent David Leach