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Josh Bergeron: What might a more traditional graduation look like for RSS?

There’s no perfect way for schools to host high school graduations this year.

Students deserve to have some sort of graduation ceremony before many of them head off to schools, but exactly how that happens is a decision that depends on how local leaders view the state of COVID-19 in their community. Rowan-Salisbury Schools opted for a drive-thru graduation on Friday, which seems like the safest way to hold a coronavirus commencement. Cabarrus County Schools did something similar and took advantage of the Charlotte Motor Speedway as the venue to do so. Kannapolis City Schools came the closest of the three to having a traditional graduation ceremony when it filed students one-by-one through an auditorium to receive a diploma and recorded it for broadcast later.

In our area those are basically the two most prevalent options — a drive-thru event or some type of in person ceremony that’s recorded and broadcast later. Gathering restrictions make it difficult to impossible in North Carolina for traditional ceremonies to happen right now.

In a sign of how handling the coronavirus outbreak differs from state to state, my sister on Friday graduated at Braly Municipal Stadium in Florence, Alabama, in what was mostly a traditional ceremony. The stadium was used because it allowed for social distancing to a greater scale than any other venue. There were other measures like handing school-branded masks to graduates and not shaking graduates’ hands when they picked up their diploma.

To be clear, the stadium holds more than your average high school venue. For nearly three decades, it played host to the NCAA Division II Football Championship. The local college and city high school’s football teams use it for games, too.

Yard lines on the field were used to space seating for graduates. Blue tape on bleachers marked appropriate distances for spectators. While the stadium has more than 14,000 seats, families of the 330 graduates were given five tickets. That’s roughly 1,650 family members. Some families wore masks when entering and exiting the stadium because social distancing was not easy to maintain.

Could Rowan-Salisbury Schools do something similar in the boundaries of the county for its still-promised in-person ceremony in October?

It’s hard to predict what might come with any certainty.

Mostly, a more traditional in-person event relies on restrictions imposed by Gov. Roy Cooper and/or state officials. And a model developed by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which was used by the White House to project the current outbreak, says that a significant spike in North Carolina cases and deaths could start in late August and early September.

If a spike is to come, it’s best to be cautious. But that caution will result in a return to previous restrictions and prevent gatherings of the scale of a public high school graduation.

It seems near impossible to find a facility large enough to eliminate ticket requirements while still adhering to social distancing recommendations. Though, ticket limits could be loosened for smaller graduating classes. Ticket limits could further be loosened by the reality that college classes will still be in session and some graduates will not return for a more traditional ceremony in October.

Livingstone or Catawba colleges might volunteer their stadiums, each with a seating capacity of several thousand. Alternatively, high schools could try to use their own football stadiums with limited tickets. It would be easy enough to record and live stream each ceremony for those unable to attend.

COVID-19 has changed so many things about daily life, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario where things return to normal before the end of the year.

It’s not hard to imagine Rowan-Salisbury Schools’ promise of a more traditional, in-person graduation in October could see more changes, too.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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