Push for in-person graduations

File photo A scene from the 2018 Hudson High School commencement exercises. Elected officials representing Columbia and Greene counties are asking Gov. Andrew Cuomo to allow in-person graduations outdoors this summer.

Elected officials on both sides of the political aisle are calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to allow in-person high school graduation ceremonies that follow social-distancing protocols.

Since mid-March, gatherings have been prohibited in New York state due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Schools and colleges were shut down and learning moved from the classroom to the home.

But as most regions of the state are now in phase 2 of the economic reopening process and the number of coronavirus cases has been reduced, many businesses are beginning to reopen, including office work, retail stores and outdoor dining. Face coverings and social distancing regulations are still in place.

Some elected officials are hoping to add high school graduations to the list of permitted activities.

A letter to the governor from the Assembly Minority Conference of the state Assembly requested that in-person ceremonies be allowed over the summer.

“Allowing graduation ceremonies to proceed would offer a sense of closure for students who so abruptly left school and had their educational experiences turned upside down,” according to the letter. “This is often the last time these young people will see each other as they move onto different paths in life. Few occasions are as truly memorable, and a graduation ceremony would provide students the chance to say their goodbyes.”

The letter was signed by 42 Republicans in the Assembly, including Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-102, and Assemblyman Jake Ashby, R-107.

“Our students have worked for years to earn this moment that’s been taken from them out of unnecessary fear and lack of imagination,” Tague said. “We owe it to our students to find a way to give them this recognition and a small amount of normalcy in the aftermath of this event that took away so many memories and opportunities.”

Ceremonies can be modified to make them safer for graduates and attendees, Tague said.

“We can have people social distance, we can have these ceremonies slightly later in the summer, and we can get creative to keep these gatherings safe for all of our school districts of various sizes and circumstances throughout the state,” Tague said. “For many students not going to college or pursuing careers in trades, the military and elsewhere, this is the one opportunity they have to be recognized in a graduation ceremony, and for all their hard work we owe it to them to give them this moment and acknowledge their achievement.”

Students in the Class of 2020 have missed out on milestones like prom, senior awards ceremonies and final spring sports seasons due to the pandemic. Schools have found other ways of honoring their graduating seniors, such as distributing lawn signs identifying the student as a member of this year’s graduating class, vehicle parades outside graduating students’ homes, and “senior spotlights” highlighting graduates’ achievements posted on social media.

With the reopening process underway and many businesses and services opening up their doors following the shutdown, there should be a way to hold graduation ceremonies, Ashby said.

“High school graduation is an important day for students, families and the community as a whole,” Ashby said. “With our state allowing large box stores to operate, summer camps to open and outdoor dining to resume — all things I agree with — then our local high schools and communities should be able to properly honor our 2020 graduating class.”

A petition circulated on change.org was signed by more than 6,400 high school seniors in New York calling on Cuomo to allow both proms and graduations to be delayed and held at a later date.

“We ask that you please don’t take away something that can be postponed,” according to the petition. “The 2020 seniors were born when the world was grieving over 9/11 and now we are supposed to graduate as the world grieves the COVID-19 pandemic.”

A group of 22 Democrats in the New York state Senate also penned a letter to Cuomo on May 27 requesting that socially distanced graduations be allowed to proceed.

“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,” according to the letter.

Ceremonies could be held outdoors and in accordance with public health guidelines, according to the letter.

“The high school graduating class of 2020 should be permitted to embrace their achievements, celebrate their successes and be fully recognized as they embark on the next chapter of their lives,” according to the letter.

Tribune News Service contributed to this report.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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