California’s smallest districts plan ‘socially distant’ in-person graduations this spring

Lucerne Valley High School senior Matthew Redding picks up his gap and gown. (Photo: Lucerne Valley Unified School District)

Many California high school seniors will be tossing their grad caps up in the air via webcams this spring. But at Lucerne Valley High in San Bernardino County’s rural high desert, nearly 50 seniors, many of whom have gone to school together for 13 years, will walk the stage in person at their commencement ceremony.

Some of the state’s smallest districts, like Lucerne Valley High, are preparing to bring students back for in-person graduation ceremonies this spring, after Gov. Gavin Newsom on May 18 eased some of the restrictions for counties wishing to re-open businesses and other services at a faster pace than the rest of the state. So far 29 counties, many in rural Northern California, have been given the green light to reopen businesses.

The reopening of school campuses, however, remains an ongoing debate across California. The variety in approaches has led to a clash between local control and sweeping plans to mitigate health risks, even if social distancing protocols are followed.

“I realized that I had experienced all my lasts, and I didn’t even know it. The last time I would present to the school board or walk to the agriculture department, that hit really hard,” said Katelyn Miller, a senior at Lucerne Valley High who is a student representative on the school board. “But the district has given me a lot of hope and something to look forward to at such an unpredictable time.”

The graduation planned for May 29 won’t look the same for Lucerne Valley High as it has in prior years, and district officials have put together a three-tiered set of back-up plans if the situation changes and public health officials ban the ceremony.

Currently, the high school plans to hold a drive-in movie theater-style graduation. Families will watch from cars, each spaced at least 10 feet apart. “Pomp and Circumstance” will play as seniors donning facemasks find their seats on chairs spaced out in front of the guests. The podium will be wiped down after each staff and student speech, and the sound will play through the radio to families in their cars.

“We are a really small, family-oriented community. The community has all agreed to adopt a senior and are making gift baskets for the kids,” said Tom Courtney, board president for Lucerne Valley Unified, who has been to every graduation at Lucerne Valley High since its inaugural class graduated in 1995. “We are resilient folks out here.”

As of May 20, there were 158 deaths related to the coronavirus in San Bernardino County and more than 3,700 confirmed cases. But Courtney and other school officials said they feel the risk is low in their town. They also have back-up plans to keep students in cars if the county health department says no before graduation day.

On May 18, California released revised criteria that counties must meet in order to loosen stay-at-home restrictions, such as hospital capacity and number of coronavirus cases. Whether a school wants to host an in-person graduation ceremony or have students return to campus is a local decision, according to the California Department of Education.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond also recently launched a working group to explore how schools can safely bring students back to campus. While reopening remains a local decision, Thurmond has stressed that most schools will have to hold virtual graduation ceremonies this spring to keep the community safe.

“We know it’s tough on our students that cannot have traditional ceremonies because that’s the only way to keep them safe. But we are holding virtual ceremonies across the state and across the country,” Thurmond said at a press briefing last week. “Even though we can only celebrate you virtually, nothing can minimize the level of pride that we feel about your accomplishments.”

There are growing concerns about restarting California’s economy, including welcoming students back to campus for graduation. The number of cases varies by county, but many are still experiencing increases, according to a Los Angeles Times tracker of COVID-19 cases throughout the state.

“This is an important period of time,” Newsom said in a daily briefing on May 18. “We’re moving into an important few weeks ahead of us and we’re going to see a lot more activity. Let’s just make sure we do it thoughtfully and strategically.”

Sutter Union High School

Sutter and Yuba counties were among the first in the state to fully reopen some businesses despite the statewide stay-at-home order that is still in place.

There, some high schools have already brought students back on campus. Sutter Union High School’s 175 seniors came back at staggered times to meet with counselors for a health and wellness check, to pick up a senior T-shirt and to have an exit interview with the principal. School staff took students’ temperatures on site and told students to stay home if they or anyone they had contacted was sick.

Sutter Union High officials are now discussing ways to bring back students who are struggling with distance learning, in particular with math, for individual or small-group tutoring sessions, said school principal Ryan Robison.

Many students struggling the most live in the south edge of the district’s boundary where a steady internet connection is hard to come by, Robison added.

“We still have to deliver school work for those kids. That’s my biggest challenge,” he said. “So we are trying to figure that out so they can come back.”

Come graduation day, Sutter Union High administrators plan to have seniors spaced out across their football field in masks, with staff nearby disinfecting surfaces, such as the microphone. While the event typically draws about 5,000 people, this year students are only allowed two tickets each, and guests will sit or stand at least 6 feet apart.

Sutter, one of the counties given the OK to begin loosening stay-at-home restrictions, is dealing with an internal conflict. The school’s plan doesn’t comply with current Sutter County health recommendations because it would bring too many people together. The district has several contingency plans and details are being modified nearly every day, said Robison, adding that he is working closely with local health officials to make decisions for the event.

Regardless of how things change in the coming weeks, Robison said there will be some form of in-person graduation ceremony for seniors, even if it means a small ceremony for each student.

“We know that we are out of bounds right now. We hope that the situation will clear up in the next few weeks, and we are prepared to offer a graduation ceremony that meets the conditions at the time,” he said. “We will never do anything to jeopardize the health of students and our community, but we need to find balance and find a safe way to recognize kids.”

Del Oro and Placer High Schools

In Placer County, Del Oro and Placer high schools both plan to hold in-person ceremonies with no more than 50 graduates present at one time, according to a letter Placer Union High School District Superintendent George Sziraki sent to families.

One Size Isn’t Going to Fit All

Meanwhile, counties with higher rates of coronavirus cases have banned in-person and drive-through graduations altogether. South Pasadena High School recently had to walk back plans for a drive-through graduation ceremony after health officials advised that all graduations be virtual only in Los Angeles County, which has 40,895 cases and 1,973 deaths related to the coronavirus as of May 20.

In Santa Clara County, where 138 people have died of the coronavirus as of May 20, car parades were also prohibited. But on May 18, the county health department reversed the rule, saying it is okay for residents to “participate in car parades, so long as they ride in cars only with members of their households and do not leave the cars during the parade or stop to gather at a fixed location,” its website reads.

Other Bay Area counties such as Contra Costa and Alameda similarly revised shelter-in-place restrictions this week to allow car gatherings for graduates. “These gatherings are considered fairly low risk, but only if all rules are followed,” said Dr. Erica Pan, Health Officer for Alameda County.

Rural living comes with a different set of needs and concerns, Robison and other rural education officials argue. School officials in Lucerne Valley said they are perhaps more concerned about potential heat stroke during the ceremony with families in cars.

“One size isn’t going to fit all for all districts,” said Robison. “All the districts are facing very similar problems, but how they answer and solve those varies.”

Graduation is one of many big changes that Miller, the senior at Lucerne Valley High, has faced during the pandemic. Just weeks ago she was ready to start a new chapter studying at Cal Poly Pomona, but recently changed her plans because paying for student housing while classes are online didn’t seem practical.

Now Miller plans to start her college journey at home, attending Victor Valley Community College. Her long-term goal is to major in agricultural science and minor in education, then become an agricultural science teacher.

“Everything from prom to senior trip and just going to school every day, it’s hard to let go of any of those things, but graduation is the real big wrap up,” Miller said. “I worked for the diploma, but my parents worked for the memory of graduation. They want to see me in a cap and gown.”

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