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A traditional, sort of, North Middlesex graduation may happen after all


TOWNSEND – The high school graduation plan that North Middlesex Regional School District Superintendent Brad Morgan has proposed in lieu of a traditional ceremony might not be an ideal solution to a dilemma schools and colleges across the nation are facing this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But under the circumstances, it comes close.

Morgan sketched out two plans, preferred and alternate, for the Board of Health during its weekly conference call Tuesday morning.

At issue was whether to cancel commencement for the class of 2020, postpone it, or hold a virtual ceremony. Postponing was the least favored option, Morgan said, since some students will be headed off to college or the military this summer and others might have vacation plans with their families.

With the virus still infecting thousands each day in the U.S. and large gatherings prohibited per the governor’s order in Massachusetts, the plans Morgan described offer students “at least some” of what they have lost and most of the right stuff in some measure, including diplomas presented in person, photo ops, and most of all, that singular, once-in-a-lifetime march across the stage in cap and gown, with each grad’s name heralded to a select, on-site crowd of school staff and family members only.

“They’ve lost prom already,” Morgan said. “Kids want the opportunity to walk across the stage.”

The plan could be tricky to carry out, but it seems to cover all the bases.

For example, administrators will be present but won’t be handing out diplomas or shaking hands.

It will be a no-contact process, Morgan explained, with diplomas set out on a pair of podiums for grads to pick up, two at a time. Distanced by six feet, stands get wiped down between pick-ups. Speeches will be virtual.

Both plans – preferred and alternate – came out of meetings with the high school principal, school committee members and student reps, Morgan said.

The plan as proposed goes like this: With 210 students in the class, grads get split into groups of 25, with each student allowed to bring five family members and ceremonies conducted in shifts, limiting the total number of people on site at a time, including grads, guests, school staff and police.

The outdoor venue -the football field – will be set set up for several shifts over two days, Friday, June 5 and Saturday, June 6. Seating would be spread out so that everyone stays six feet apart and each group of grads and company would depart to make way for the next shift.

In the second scenario, the numbers change some, with groups of grads and family members to gather in “carloads” off site –say the vacant bank property across from the high school or another nearby location – and from there proceed to the graduation site, one shift at a time.

Both plans incorporate photo ops, with proper precautions. Set up as a drive-through, families and grads would exit their cars for photos then get back in and drive away, Morgan explained.

Asked if the protective masks everyone will be required to wear may be removed for photos, he said yes, masks can come off while the photographer – stationed six feet away – captures each proud moment on camera.

Chairman Christopher Genoter asked Morgan if the plans as presented might violate a state order regarding gathering size. “No more than ten” is the standard for public spaces, board members said.

But it wasn’t clear if that applies to outdoor spaces such as football fields used for a graduation versus a football game, for example. They were also concerned as to whether there can be exceptions to the rule.

Morgan seemed confident that given the careful choreography, with precautions as described and that the event is outdoors, the state would be okay with it. Besides, he said, there’s literally nobody at the state level to ask. And the Dept. of Education has declined to weigh in, he said, in effect leaving it up to local school districts to make graduation plans – if any – on their own.

After much discussion, the board made a motion to accept Morgan’s plans, in principal, with a vote set for next week, contingent on compliance with the state order as it stands after May 18, when the existing order sunsets .

On that date, if not before, Governor Charlie Baker is expected to address the public on his phased-in reopening plans for the state. Or, based on data, whether the current order will be extended.

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