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Commencement ceremonies still under question for district

JOHNSTOWN — School districts in the HFM BOCES region continue to mull options for commencement ceremonies to celebrate graduating seniors amidst restrictions on public gatherings to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

HFM BOCES District Superintendent David Ziskin briefed the Board of Education on the ongoing search for solutions to celebrate student achievement particularly for graduating seniors among leaders of component districts and across the state while officials await guidance from the state Department of Health and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“Many of our public schools have questions around celebrations and in particular graduation ceremonies that occur at the end of the year. There is kind of a dearth of guidance out there right now,” said Ziskin.

Ziskin noted that some county health department in the state have issued guidelines on how to safely conduct commencement events that has been shared with local school leaders, but guidance from the state is still anticipated.

“The feeling right now is that guidance will be coming very soon from the state Department of Health,” said Ziskin.

Guidance issued by some county health departments in other regions of the state have offered some clarity in the meantime surrounding what may be acceptable and not, said Ziskin.

“One thing is clear, we must continue to prioritize the health and safety and comply with any social distancing guidelines that come either from the state or from the county,” he noted.

While school districts have the option of delaying graduation ceremonies until later in the summer in hopes of holding in-person ceremonies, Ziskin said only one or two districts in the HFM region are currently considering this option. Although nearly every region in the state has begun phased reopenings easing restrictions from the stay at home order issued by Cuomo in March, Ziskin pointed out that the governor has not given any indication that large gatherings will be allowed at even the final stage of reopening as outlined by the state.

“My message to those school districts was that’s your prerogative to delay, but I think districts should make plans that account for conditions that we’re facing right now,” said Ziskin. “Right now we don’t have the ability to have gatherings of 10 or more people in our state.”

Local public health officials have pointed to options that result in no personal contact among individuals as the best option for ceremonies that can be done virtually through videoconference or a video shared online.

For school districts that choose to conduct ceremonies modified in-person ceremonies, Ziskin pointed to strict recommendations from health officials that would maintain social distancing for the duration of the event.

Such options include creating a video that will be screened at a drive-in movie theatre for students and their immediate families to watch together while remaining in their car as the Broadalbin-Perth Central School District will do this year or hosting a drive-thru event at a central location that can accommodate students and their immediate families in their vehicles.

“It’s strictly students and their immediate families, one family in a car, no one gets out of the car except for the student very briefly to be recognized, but there’s no personal contact with any of those models,” said Ziskin. “There is no discussion right now to bring students on campus for a large group ceremony.”

Some districts producing videos for drive-in viewing or for online distribution plan to invite students to campus individually at staggered times to film graduating seniors receiving their diplomas while crossing the stage of their school auditorium wearing their caps and gowns.

The Gloversville Enlarged School Districts will ask seniors to visit the high school one at a time over the course of three days next week to be filmed receiving their diplomas in case plans to host an outdoor ceremony for students and immediate family members prove unfeasible and the district is limited to distributing a video online.

Ziskin called districts on producing these “individual ceremonies” on school campuses or at students’ homes to exercise caution by keeping the recognitions brief while following social distancing protocols, requiring masks to be worn and ensuring the proceedings do not result in large groups of people meeting.

“This is something we have to be very careful with,” said Ziskin. “We need to be sure that we are not in any way contributing to any spread of COVID-19 and the recommendation is maintain an appropriate social distancing.”

The reminder from Ziskin comes just two weeks after Montgomery County Department of Public Health Director Sara Boerenko in a weekly update over the county’s Facebook page on May 15 stated that following a recognition event distributing signs to students carried out by an unnamed school district in the county, an undisclosed number of individuals had been placed under mandatory quarantine and would be tested for the coronavirus after coming into contact with individuals who were confirmed to have the virus.

With roughly a month to go before high schools would normally host graduation ceremonies at the end of June, many local schools are still weighing options and developing contingencies to honor graduating seniors.

Ziskin noted that HFM BOCES will not conduct ceremonies that require any contact between individuals for students receiving certifications from the district’s special education, Career and Technical Center or PTECH programs. Those students typically cross the stage in ceremonies hosted by BOCES and during graduation ceremonies conducted by their home school districts.

“We will comply and we will strictly follow the recommendations that come from local or state departments of health,” said Ziskin of the district’s decision.

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