School board allows graduation ceremonies at high schools

Marion County public high school students received the final approval Thursday to hold in-person graduation exercises at their schools using strict guidelines for physical distancing and health amid the coronavirus pandemic. This photo is from a local commencement from 2018.

FAIRMONT — The Marion County Board of Education agreed Thursday to allow the county’s three high schools to hold in-person outdoor graduation ceremonies later this month under strict social distancing guidelines.

Both North Marion High and Fairmont Senior High will hold graduation ceremonies on Friday, June 26, at 7 p.m. North Marion’s ceremonies will take place at Husky Field in Farmington, while Fairmont Senior’s commencement activities will unfold at East-West Stadium.

East Fairmont High will hold graduation ceremonies on Saturday, June 27, at 7 p.m. at East-West Stadium.

The decision was made Thursday in Fairmont during a workshop session of the board.

Graduation ceremonies for the county’s Class of 2020 students had been uncertain since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. Last week, Gov. Jim Justice said West Virginia schools were permitted to hold in-person graduation ceremonies in outdoor ventures only.

“The takeaway is we’re trying to have an in-person outdoor graduation ceremony for our seniors, but we’re trying to do it in a socially-responsible and safe manner,” said Randy Farley, Marion County’s superintendent of schools.

Each high school will limit graduation ceremony admission tickets to two per student, with the custodial parent(s) receiving the tickets. The ceremonies will be livestreamed on the schools’ respective Facebook pages.

Some board members voiced concern over family members being left out because of the two-ticket rule, but there is a precedent for issuing tickets for a limited number of seats, especially during past graduation ceremonies that were moved indoors due to inclement weather.

“It just pulls at your heart not to let some people in, but we’re very concerned if we don’t keep the limit at two tickets per student it could be dangerous,” said Farley.

Early in the meeting, Farley admitted unease regarding reports that recent large gatherings of people, including events in West Virginia, have resulted in COVID-19 outbreaks.

“I’m very concerned that where large gatherings are happening, hot spots are breaking out,” said Farley. “With events like high school graduation ceremonies, we don’t know who’s bringing what into the mix.”

As it stands, West Virginia has a current 100 person maximum on social gatherings. Graduation ceremonies have been given permission to exceed that amount. Even with a two-guest limit each of the county ceremonies expects at least 700 individuals in attendance.

“We’re already way, way above the social gathering limit set by the state, but we were given permission as long as we follow all the precautions. So that’s what we’ll do to keep people safe,” said Farley.

Hand sanitizer will be readily available. Temperatures will not be taken prior to entry. Face masks are highly-encouraged, but optional.

Farley said the school board has worked closely with the Marion County Health Department throughout the coronavirus saga and will continue to consult closely with the agency.

The county health department has put into place guidelines for larger gatherings, but has left to the school board’s discretion the unique structure of each school’s graduation ceremony.

“First and foremost, everyone wants to have the graduation ceremonies take place. Having said that, we must be cognizant of the fact we’re still in the middle of a pandemic and we still have an increasing number of cases,” said Lloyd White, Marion County health department administrator. “So, the questions before us are, ‘How can we do it?’ and ‘How can we do it safely?’”

White said he has met with Farley and the school board throughout the pandemic with the hope there would someday be public commencement exercises.

“We’ve worked with the board of education to come up with a plan where we can have graduation ceremonies that are safe for everyone who’s involved,” White said. “We came up with a plan we think will work, while lowering the rate of communicable disease transmission.”

According to a West Virginia Department of Education paper titled “Graduation Considerations,” outdoor ceremonies must be structured to allow for appropriate social distancing and safety measures, six feet of social distancing is required, and face masks or coverings are strongly encouraged.

Other safety precautions for graduation ceremonies listed in the education department’s paper include the following:

• Handshaking and hugging are not permitted.

• A system should be established to maintain separation of families wanting to take pictures of graduates.

• Hand sanitizer should be provided throughout the area.

• Markings must be placed on the ground for six feet of social distance between graduates in line to receive diplomas and certificates.

• Livestream events online or on television to offer alternatives for those who wish to view the ceremonies without traveling to the venue.

“I’d like the community to know we would love to have as much participation as we can and we’re trying to do that, but we’re doing it in a safe manner. We do have to limit the number of people who can be there,” Farley said. “If you can’t be there in person, please watch the live feed of the event.”

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