2021 | Schools

UPDATED: Council approves guidance for in-person school graduations

Restrictions include group, spacing, time limits

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This story was updated at 6:10 p.m. April 20, 2021, to include details of the school district’s plans.

Montgomery County high school seniors will be able to walk across graduation stages this spring after a year of mostly virtual learning and upended experiences.

The County Council unanimously approved guidance and restrictions for in-person graduations on Tuesday morning.

Montgomery County Public Schools was originally planning for traditional in-person graduation ceremonies before shifting to hold ceremonies at outdoor stadiums. A decision about whether virtual ceremonies should be held instead was expected this month.

The council, sitting as the Board of Health, implemented several restrictions, including:

● The total number of people present at an outdoor graduation ceremony must be limited to 50% of the outdoor venue’s maximum occupancy.
● If an outdoor venue does not have a formal certificate of occupancy, 40 square feet per person must be used to calculate the occupancy limit.
● The total number of persons present at an indoor graduation ceremony would be limited to 25% of the maximum occupancy or 250 people, whichever is smaller.
● A school that plans an indoor graduation ceremony must obtain a Letter of Approval for its plan, showing how it would meet the general requirements of the regulation.
● A record of everyone attending the graduation must be kept for 30 days to enable contact tracing.
● The school must identify a point of contact for attendees to notify if they test positive for COVID-19 within two weeks after the event. The point of contact must notify the county’s Department of Health and Human Services within one business day of notice of a positive test.
● No more than 10 people can be on the stage at one time.
● The ceremony must last no more than two hours.
● Members of the audience from different households must remain at least six feet apart at all times.
● Signage explaining the infectious-disease-control requirements must be posted at the venue.
● No group or staged photography.
● No congregating or gathering in common areas both inside and outside the venue before or after the ceremony.
● A masked speaker must be at least 12 feet from the audience and an unmasked speaker must be at least 18 feet from the audience.
● Diplomas must be distributed without handshakes or physical contact.
● No food or beverage concessions at the ceremony.

During a school board meeting Tuesday afternoon, MCPS Associate Superintendent James Koutsos said the district is working with the county health department to obtain a waiver that would allow a maximum of two guests per graduate at its outdoor ceremonies. He said MCPS expects a response this week.

Graduations will be held between June 2 and 17 at high schools’ athletic stadiums. All ceremonies will be held at either 9 a.m. or 6 p.m. to “avoid the heat of the day,” aside from ceremonies at MCPS’ three special schools.

Graduations at Rock Terrace, Stephen Knolls and Longview School will begin at 10 a.m.

Contingency plans have been made for each school if there is inclement weather, Koutsos said.

All graduation rehearsals will be virtual, and fifth- and eighth-grade promotions will be held virtually.

Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz said during Tuesday’s council meeting that the guidance mirrors what Washington, D.C., has mandated for graduations.

“Following a regional approach to these critically important decisions is very helpful from a consistency standpoint,” he said. “As we know, there are independent schools, as an example, where a number of students may reside in the county or go to school in the District of Columbia or vice versa.”

Resident Sarah Kessler, a parent of a high school senior in the county, spoke at a public hearing on the guidance and urged officials to prioritize seniors for vaccination in the coming weeks.

“Specific clinics could be designated a few high schools throughout the county in order to be easily accessible to our student population. … There has been no outreach from MCPS at all about facilitating vaccinations for students,” she said.

Kessler said the six-foot separation for attendees should not apply for those who have been vaccinated, so the county can expand the capacity to allow more people to attend.

“After a year of watching our seniors sit at home, sinking deeper into depression as they missed every final milestone, parents and students are filled with hope about end-of-the-year celebrations,” she said.

Resident Rami Kandel, also a parent of a high school senior, said his son missed all of the experiences and opportunities he was hoping for during his last year in high school.

“However, the most important thing that he and all the seniors have left is the graduation ceremony from high school. … No homecoming dance, no fall football nights, no class of 2021 car decorating, no prom — none of the last year together celebrating milestones,” he said.

Kandel also urged the council to take the county’s rising vaccinations in consideration to allow in-person graduations.

“Do not take away graduation from the kids and their families,” he said. “So much has been taken away from them already.”

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com.