JEFFERSON — Having held a virtual graduation ceremony in June, Jefferson High School is finalizing plans to host an in-person ceremony Aug. 7 on the football field, with strict social-distancing protocols in place.
The Friday evening ceremony would have a rain date the next day. In case of two straight days of inclement weather, there are no further plans to reschedule.
School District of Jefferson Superintendent Mark Rollefson said that the district surveyed graduates and their families to determine the level of interest in an in-person ceremony.
The survey asked families to weigh in on the option of a sit-down diploma distribution.
Fifty percent of respondents said they would participate in such a ceremony, with 76 percent of those in favor of an in-person event preferring an outdoors location.
The event is set to take place at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 7, on the high school football field. The number of guests will be strictly limited to four for each graduate’s family, with a designated seating area for each family, said Rollefson.
Rollefson said that while the football field has been under renovation with the installation of new lighting, officials feel it will be ready to host the August ceremony.
“We are working on logistics right now,” the superintendent said, noting that the district would follow all coronavirus-related health recommendations from the county at the ceremony.
Since the ceremony is outside, it poses a lower risk of COVID-19 transmission, but attendees will be required to follow social-distancing guidelines. In addition, the district is requesting, though not requiring, that attendees wear face masks to protect those who are most vulnerable.
“We have a lot of land to spread out on,” Rollefson said.
Serving as guest speaker for the event will be 2020 retiree Joan Fitzgerald, a math teacher who was with the district for the past 33 1/2 years.
All plans are contingent on approval from health agencies.
Hearing about the plans at Monday night’s school board meeting, board members expressed appreciation for all of the effort that has gone into planning this ceremony for the pandemic year graduates, and also the inclusion of this year’s retirees, who had a less-than-stellar sendoff from the district due to the forced school closures.
“I know this means a lot to our graduates,” board member Terri Wenkman said.
“I also appreciate the decision to reach out to retired personnel,” board President Donna Bente said.
Board member Dick Lovett said that he appreciates the sentiment behind the occasion, but he would like to see the mask request formalized into a requirement for the ceremony.
“I know probably wearing masks is not the most enjoyable thing for people. But it’s a responsibility and an awareness of our time,” he said.
Lovett noted that research has shown that without face masks, plumes of breath travel some distance, and the disease is airborne.
“I lay this out as a personal concern for the students we have had through their high school years, some of them through their entire lifetimes,” Lovett said.
And even greater than his concern for the students, Lovett shared his concern for the relatives who come to see the event and who could be very vulnerable.
In past years, he said, school graduations have dispersed into a jubilant, but chaotic, affair with lots of close contact between students, family members and the friends celebrating with them, and he was concerned about potential COVID-19 transmission.
Board member Donna Bente said that without a countywide mask mandate, it would be difficult to require masks for an outdoor ceremony.
However, she pointed out that the district has put in place very strict guidelines for students’ and families’ controlled release from the ceremony.
Even the exit process will be controlled, with families leaving at the same time as their graduate, following the opportunity for a family-by-family photo.
Rollefson said he can’t make promises about how the public might behave, but past graduations have had a respectful, ceremonial atmosphere, and he was confident the same atmosphere would prevail this year.
For now, the district is moving ahead with the ceremony, with extra protections in place to minimize risks, but the superintendent noted that things could shift and change depending on the course of the pandemic and any directives that might come from the county or state in the interim.