By Michelle Wagner | Outer Banks Voice on May 28, 2020
After Dare County Schools received some pushback earlier this month about proposed graduation modifications during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Board of Education on May 28 unanimously backed Superintendent John Farrelly’s recommendation to move forward with drive-in graduation ceremonies for the district’s three high schools.
The difference between the earlier plan and the new decision by the board is that the ceremonies will be now be held at the schools’ traditional outdoor venues rather than take place indoors as was originally proposed.
The drive-in version of graduation will involve graduates, along with their families and household members, arriving at designated times to receive diplomas and take photographs. Family groups will be scheduled on rotation to adhere to social distancing guidelines and Governor Roy Cooper’s Executive Order that limits outdoor mass gatherings to less than 25 people.
After a spirited conversation on the subject, the board also voted to require that face coverings be worn, except when graduates receive their diplomas on the stage and take photos with families, at which time they can be briefly removed. Videographer Benny Baldwin has been hired to produce a video of the ceremonies.
“What we’ve tried to focus on is to provide students with everything that’s available to celebrate their milestone with their family, but also keep in mind the health and welfare of our stakeholders as we’re making decisions,” Farrelly said after making his recommendation to the board.
First Flight High School is scheduled to hold its drive-in ceremony on the school’s football field over a three-day period beginning June 1. Manteo High School’s graduation event will be held June 8 to 10 at the Waterside Theatre on Roanoke Island, and Cape Hatteras Secondary School graduates will have their drive-in celebration on June 11 at the school’s baseball field.
Superintendent Farrelly also recommended, and the board approved, tentatively scheduling traditional graduation ceremonies in mid-July if the governor’s Executive Order allows. “This would be under the guise that if conditions warrant the ability to safely hold traditional ceremonies while protecting the health and safety of staff, students and parents,” Farrelly noted, adding that it would depend on whether the state moved into phase three of re-opening and what limits would be placed on outdoor gatherings.
If conditions allow, First Flight High School would celebrate a July 17 ceremony, while Manteo High School and Cape Hatteras Secondary School would have commencement ceremonies on July 18 – all at the same outdoor venues as their drive-in events.
“I think this is going above and beyond,” Farrelly asserted, adding, “There are only four other districts in the state that are offering both of these options [drive-in and the possibility of a traditional ceremony]. I think it provides us with an opportunity to recognize our kids now and, recognizing that we are still in a pandemic, the welfare of our stakeholders. But it also offering the opportunity to have a traditional ceremony if we have that opportunity.”
In response to a question by board members, Farrelly noted that Dare County Health and Human Services Director Sheila Davies advised against traditional ceremonies under current circumstances, adding, “She is adamant the Board of Education should not consider a traditional ceremony.”
As far as district administration staff, he noted there are two things they were also adamant about: “Not having a traditional ceremony and [to] wear masks.”
Farrelly said that the mask recommendation is “erring on the side of safety for our staff. Taking your masks off during picture time is reasonable and I think warranted.”
He also acknowledged that due to health concerns among some school staff, central office staff may step in to help during the upcoming ceremonies. “The reality is, we have staff members who do not want to [participate], just to be frank… Staff members across the district are not lining up necessarily, just to protect their own health, to participate.”
Board Attorney Richard Schwartz briefly addressed the board, noting that the recommendation currently from public health officials is to wear masks. “One thing you should keep in mind is the health and safety of your staff,” he said.
Several board members weighed in on the mask issue, including Board Member Harvey Hess, who along with Board Member Joe Tauber, questioned the need for requiring face coverings during the ceremonies. Tauber suggested that employees could wear masks if they didn’t feel comfortable and that people could not attend if they felt they were high risk. “We are guided by the Executive Order that takes into account all these so-called experts from the CDC and the NC Health department,” said Tauber. “[People] know the dangers of it and have the option of not attending or attending if they want.”
In contrast, Board Member Mary Ellon Ballance threw her support behind the requirement. “Whatever we decide, we have to live with that decision…If it was traced back to something we voted OK on, and people were infected, we’d have to live with that. It’s a scary decision to make.”
Ballance stressed the need to consider the risk posed to administrators. “This is a tough decision to make and the consequences of these decisions are serious,” she said, making a motion to support Farrelly’s recommendation.
“At the end of the day, what the administrators are most comfortable with, coupled with the responsibility that we are willing to shoulder in making this decision, and the recommendation and advice from the state and Sheila [Davies], your original plan is where we need to be,” she concluded.