On Wednesday, the Big Walnut Board of Education voted to move forward with the planned Big Walnut High School Class of 2020 graduation ceremony scheduled to be held at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 25. The event will be held outdoors in the high school football stadium.
The decision, taken at a special virtual meeting lasting more than two hours, leaves open the option of cancelling commencement if the COVID-19 pandemic were to get worse in Delaware County.
District Superintendent Angie Hamberg said she has consulted with the Delaware General Health District about whether to hold the graduation. She was told that it wasn’t recommended, but the DGHD wouldn’t prevent it from happening. The key, Hamberg said, is that the graduation will be a controlled situation, with social distancing practiced.
“We feel like we have a plan that will keep everyone safe,” Hamberg said. “We have to make a decision.”
Big Walnut High School Principal Andy Jados said there would be extra seating and restrooms provided for the event.
Hamberg asked the board if it was comfortable with continuing to have the graduation. It was mentioned that a citation could be issued by police.
“I would say go ahead and do it,” said board member Doug Crowl. “If you want to name someone to arrest, I’m willing. I’ve got two grandchildren graduating. Do we want them to cower?”
“I’m concerned about the message this sends, openly going against authority, and then afterwards the parties are unsafe because of the virus,” said board member Sherri Dorsch. “I want to keep everyone safe, and we want to set an example for our community. I see that as being smart. It is a pandemic.”
Board President Brad Schneider said he was frustrated that the state government hasn’t provided more guidance on the matter and that the decision fell to school boards.
“We have a plan that’s solid, so I don’t see a reason not to,” Schneider said of holding the ceremony.
Also weighing into the decision was the idea that county fairs were allowed to resume, students may be returning to classrooms next month anyways, fall sports may return without fans, the eastern part of the county doesn’t have as many cases of the novel coronavirus, and families have the option of watching instead of attending the graduation.
The vote was 4-1 in favor of holding the graduation ceremony, with Liana Lee casting the lone no vote.
“As much as I want this, it’s an unnecessary risk based on the science that’s out there,” Lee said. “I’m concerned once this is over, people are going to do what they’re going to do,” meaning once the ceremony ended, the social distancing would, too.
Big Walnut’s graduation ceremony was originally scheduled to take place on May 16. However, the state’s stay-at-home orders were extended from March until the end of the school year. In addition, the district wanted to give seniors a graduation ceremony to reward their hard work. Other districts in the county have already held their ceremonies virtually or via the drive-thru variety.
Also at the meeting, Hamberg discussed the upcoming 2020-2021 school year. Classes are to resume Wednesday, Aug. 19. Hamberg said it may be better to have staff return Aug. 17, have a staggered start for some students on Aug. 24, and have full classes begin on Aug. 31. Seven days could be cut from the usual school year.
Part of the reason for the delay is to make sure the new Prairie Run Elementary is finished. There was also talk about having remote learning for those students who wanted it, and the possibility of a school week that combined going to class a couple days and remote learning. Discussion included the mental health benefits of children returning to school, such as socializing, less food insecurity, and less domestic violence.
Another factor in the uncertainty of dates and classes was the lateness of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s announcement on school reopening, which has put the district’s planning for staff and size of classes back a month.
If kids were to return to classrooms, they would be required to wear masks from third grade on, with exceptions for special needs students. There may be times and places during the day that may be optional. Masks would be provided to students if they couldn’t afford them. The masks would be required on buses. In addition, students would be shown hygiene measures, such as hand-washing.
Treasurer Jeremy Buskirk said the district could reserve funds for sanitizer and masks, but it may not be needed if the district opts to go to an all-remote learning model.
While there was some concern about enforcing the mask-wearing, board member Stephen Fujii said it could be included in the district’s policies, such as dress code and code of student conduct. Also mentioned was temperature screening, but Hamberg said that would be hard for the schools to do.
“We ask parents to self-assess,” she said. “Stay home if you have any symptoms.”
Hamberg said she was trying to get more information from parents about their preferences, and would have the board take a vote on the new school year at its meeting on July 23.
“We have a huge laundry list of ideas, but nothing final yet,” Hamberg said. Once things are finalized, students and their families will be provided with an update.
Gary Budzak may be reached at 740-413-0906 or on Twitter @GaryBudzak.