Will NMRHS graduation go foward? Townsend BOH still on the fence

North Middlesex Regional High School graduates sit and wait for all their fellow classmate to get their diplomas at Fitchburg State University Recreation Center during the graduation on Friday night. SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE/ JOHN LOVE

TOWNSEND – North Middlesex Regional School District Superintendent Brad Morgan has two proposals on the table that would allow high school graduation for the Class of 2020 to take place on the football field next month. Physically, not virtually, that is, with intricate orchestration for each one.

Both plans were presented to the Board of Health for the first time last week and were being revisited this week.

In light of state and local restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most other districts have either opted for virtual graduation ceremonies this year or postponed them until summer, so if the North Middlesex graduation plan gels, it could be an historic departure from the traditional in the new norm.

With three member towns in the regional school district — Ashby, Pepperell and Townsend — jurisdiction in this matter lies with the Townsend health board because the high school is in that town.

During the board’s weekly conference call/meeting last Tuesday morning, Morgan was there to make his case.

But most of the discussion was between board members and centered on whether the first plan, or Option 1, which Morgan called the “preferred option” when he laid it out at the earlier session, would clash with Gov. Charlie Baker’s recently updated orders for re-opening the state.

Unveiled at a press conference on Monday, May 18, the governor’s plan calls for a phased-in re-start after a two-month lockdown.

In the original state shut-down orders, gatherings of more than 10 people were prohibited. In the updated version, that order still stands.

The question now, health board members said, was whether an outdoor graduation merits a pass, given that there were exceptions listed, such as “incidental” gatherings in parking lots or recreational areas.

Chairman Christopher Genoter didn’t think so, not for the first option, anyway.

“It sounds like we’re still restricted” to a 10-person limit,” he said. “So we can only go with option two.”

Town sanitation agent Rick Metcalf, of the Nashoba Associated Boards of Health, agreed. “It sounds more realistic” he said.

But member Linda Johansen disagreed.

The state has been silent on this issue, she said, and Morgan’s preferred graduation plan fits the profile, in her view. “They had two months to deal with this,” she said. Now it’s up to the board to make the call. “We need to take action,” she said. “We can do it.”

Option 1 divides the 210-member class into 25 groups, plus five family members for each grad.

In the no-contact plan Morgan described, graduating seniors walk across the stage, two at a time, to pick up diplomas, laid out on a pair of well-spaced podiums, with each group immediately departing to make way for the next.

The end result would be that no more than 50 people would be on the field at a time, Morgan said, with precautions in place, per state requirements. For example, everybody would wear a mask and each family group would be socially distanced, six feet from others.

No audience would be seated and no on-site group activities are planned. Speeches would be virtual.

In the second scenario, Option 2, each graduating senior arrives with his or her family, all in separate vehicles, which would line up at an off-site location (to be determined later) nearby at a designated time.

On cue, the vehicles drive over to the graduation site, set up on the school’s football field, one at a time, and seniors walk across the stage solo to pick up their diplomas, minus the traditional handshake. Podiums would be disinfected after each use.

Picture-taking would be a drive-up operation. Seniors and family groups get out of their vehicles, one group at a time, at an off-stage area set up for the purpose. After the photographer — safely stationed six feet away — snaps the shot, the group gets back in the car and drives off and the next car pulls in.

Ceremonies would be spread out over a specific time frame and held over two days: June 5 and 6.

Morgan did not favor postponing graduation, as some other schools have done, in part because many of the seniors might have other plans over the summer, such as family vacations. Some are headed off for college, he said, and one or two in the class who joined the military might be leaving for basic training.

Basically, it’s a one-shot deal, he said, and he needs to know soon – ideally by the end of this week — so that one of the graduation options he has drafted can be orchestrated in time.

The board wrapped its discussion Tuesday morning without giving either plan a green light. But they didn’t say no, either. Clearly leaning toward a yes, they wanted clarity at the state level, hopefully from a conference call Metcalf had coming up later that day with the state health board.

Morgan asked Metcalf to bring the graduation issue up during the call.

Genoter, in particular, indicated he’d welcome a directive from the state, one way or the other. “This puts me in a tough spot,” he said. “My daughter is one of the kids graduating.”

The board was scheduled to meet again Wednesday where the decision might be made.

They also agreed to schedule another meeting for Friday morning, just in case.