HELENA — Helena Public Schools leaders have announced they are planning to hold in-person graduation ceremonies, with some restrictions, but that they could still have to make changes based on COVID-19.
Superintendent Tyler Ream laid out the district’s plans for graduation at a Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday evening.
The district is currently looking at holding full-school graduations at Carroll College’s Nelson Stadium. Helena and Capital High Schools’ ceremonies would be set for Saturday, June 6, while the Project for Alternative Learning’s would be scheduled for Friday, June 5.
Each participating student would be allowed only two guests at the ceremonies, though the events would be streamed online. With about 300 students in each of Helena and Capital’s graduating classes, that would keep the total number of people in attendance below 1,000.
“We would need to carefully set out not just where the graduates would sit on a very large field, but also where those 600 family members would sit,” said Ream.
Ream said all students would sit 9 to 15 feet apart on the Nelson Stadium field. Guests would be separated by 6 to 12 feet in the stands.
Everyone in attendance would be required to wear a mask and confirm that they haven’t experienced COVID-19 symptoms. The ceremonies will be shorter than in past years. Students will have to come in and go out in specified ways, without the typical opportunity for mingling after the ceremony. Ream said they’ll likely be asked not to throw their caps.
If the situation with the virus in Montana becomes more serious, the district could hold two smaller ceremonies for Helena and Capital, with half of the class in each.
“Any given notice, this can change on us very quickly,” said Ream.
Ream said district leaders have talked to Lewis and Clark Public Health about their plans. He said they agreed their precautions would be good steps, but that it would all rely on students and guests following the guidelines.
“We’ll be asking a lot, not just of our families who are going to be attending, but really of our graduates, in terms of making good decisions before, during and after the ceremonies,” he said. “In working with health professionals, they look at our plan and say the plan logistically looks good, the health protocols look good. There is a risk to this plan, and the risk is around human behavior.”
Ream said health leaders told him it wouldn't be advisable right now to hold an indoor ceremony for groups as large as the Helena and Capital graduating classes. If those ceremonies have to be canceled because of weather, he said they will plan to postpone them to the following Saturday.
Board chair Luke Muszkiewicz thanked Ream and school district staff for their work to make this plan.
“This is a huge undertaking, and it’s going to cause a lot of anxiety for all of us, but at the same time, I’m definitely comforted by your approach,” he said.
Trustee Sarah Sullivan asked the public to continue following health leaders’ recommendations, to help maintain the virus’s current downward trend.
“I hope the community will be aware that, the better we are at social distancing and being careful, the more likely we are to have the graduation that these students really want and deserve,” she said.
Hannah Muszkiewicz, the board’s student representative from Helena High School, said seniors will still have a sense of disappointment about how this year turned out, but that they’re optimistic about the current graduation plans.
“We are having to make the best of a pretty unfortunate situation, but I think, considering even where we were a month ago, this sounds amazing,” she said.