School districts across New York state are grappling with rules that are more restrictive for commencements than for other public events. Parents and school officials wonder why.
The state’s order for graduation ceremonies forces school officials to follow rules for spacing and Covid testing that aren’t imposed on pro sports and concerts. The rules were set in April, long before the recent relaxation, especially for outdoor events. The state hasn’t updated its order.
As a result, schools — especially big high schools ― have planned mostly outdoor events with the old social distancing requirements, few guests and cumbersome rules to keep out those without a vaccination or a clean Covid test.
Under New York’s rules, guests at high school graduations must provide proof of vaccination or a clean Covid test within 72 hours. Masks, social distancing, temperature checks, contact tracing information and wellness screenings at the door are required.
But at a New York Yankees game Thursday, vaccinated fans sat together without distancing or masks, and the unvaccinated attended without proof of a negative Covid test.
High schools can’t do that for outdoor graduations. Everyone has to wear a mask and space apart (vaccinated or not).
If you aren’t vaccinated or don’t have a clean Covid test, you can’t attend a graduation at a large high school in New York.
Indoors, the New York Knicks’ upcoming games can now have 15,000 fans. Vaccinated fans can sit together without masks or social distancing. Again, high school graduations can’t do that. At indoor commencements, guests must space apart and wear masks.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo encourages fans to attend sporting events, saying they make the game, while the state encourages schools to conduct virtual graduations wherever possible.
New York state officials can’t or won’t explain it. In response to Syracuse.com’s questions, the state Health Department sent a copy of the guidelines but didn’t answer questions. The governor’s office and State Education Department referred questions to state health.
It’s unclear why the rules are so stringent for graduations and haven’t been updated with all of the other changes in the last month.
What it means is a logistical problem for large school districts. One school is bypassing all the red tape by having a graduation with only the seniors and no families. Afterward and staggered through the day, the families can attend at assigned times a diploma ceremony to get photos.
Superintendents are baffled by the contrast.
“There are mixed messages,’’ said Fayetteville-Manlius Superintendent Craig Tice. “It’s confusing for the public because there’s one set of rules for school events and another set of rules for other events. We’d like it to be uniform.”
School officials, parents and seniors hope the rules change, but the clock is running out.
For now, most larger high schools are forced to have outdoor events because the venues are bigger and the state allows higher capacities outside. The schools require proof of Covid vaccinations or a negative Covid test within 72 hours. There’s a limit of three or four guests.
Smaller high schools may not face the same problems because the rules are different for smaller gatherings. But many are still requiring clean Covid tests or vaccinations.
“There’s no justification,’’ said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “It’s frustrating, and it’s not the school’s fault. The rules are making it really difficult to hold these events.”
Lowry said they’ve been told there are discussions about changing the guidance, but nothing has been decided yet.
Liverpool’s school district chose not to go through the hassle of requiring vaccination.
Instead, Liverpool High School’s seniors will get an in-person graduation ceremony, but their parents and grandparents will have to watch it on video. That school will have a diploma ceremony later that day, where eight family members can attend without having to prove they’re vaccinated.
They can come at a designated time, take photos from a set location and see their child receive the diploma.
“Although we could put on a traditional graduation ceremony, we would have to drastically limit the amount of guests per graduate and would have to require proof of vaccination, a recent negative COVID-19 test result, or proof of a past positive COVID-19 result in the past 90 days for each of our graduates and their guests,’’ an email from the school to parents said.
Cicero-North Syracuse High School will have a traditional commencement ceremony in its outdoor stadium, but seniors and their permitted four guests must follow many steps. They must:
- Provide the names of each graduate’s guests by this week.
- Submit proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test for each guest.
- Provide photo ID and contact-tracing information for guests.
- Each guest must individually pick up a fast-pass wristband in the days leading up to graduation, not at the door. That guest must wear the wristband at graduation.
- At the event, submit to a temperature check and fill out a health-screening form.
- Once inside the stadium, wear a mask.
The Syracuse City School District, which is holding five separate graduation ceremonies at NBT Stadium, also will require testing or vaccine proof, a spokesman said. Baldwinsville and Fayetteville-Manlius will stay outside at their stadiums and require vaccines or tests.
West Genesee is having its graduation at the Center of Progress Building at the state fairgrounds, with each student allowed three guests. Again, vaccine proof and negative tests are required.
Liverpool officials said they chose their way because they have 600 graduating seniors. While Covid-19 restrictions have eased, there isn’t a venue large enough for the entire graduating class and a sizable number of guests to attend, officials said.
With 600 seniors and four guests plus staff, that’s more than 2,500 people. Complicating that are rules for showing proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test result.
Liverpool had hoped until recently to use the Expo Center at the state fairgrounds, but the state said it needed the space for vaccine clinics.
The state’s rules make superintendents take the heat for the decisions when they are following the rules, Lowry said. They want to give seniors an in-person graduation this year, after last year’s pandemic canceled them.
“We really can’t rationalize why it is the way it is,’’ he said. “It makes it really dicey for schools trying to hold these events.”
Elizabeth Doran covers education, suburban government and development, breaking news and more. Got a tip, comment or story idea? Contact her anytime at 315-470-3012 or email firstname.lastname@example.org