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Meeting of the minds

A mortarboard and graduation scroll, tied with red ribbon, on a stack of old battered book with empty space to the left. Slightly undersaturated with vignette for vintage effect.
Local superintendents to meet with OHA director, talk graduation

Superintendents from across Jackson County will meet with the director of the Oregon Health Authority on Thursday to argue that graduation ceremonies should be regulated by the state’s Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance and not county risk levels.

Jackson County is moving from extreme to high risk Friday, but there are no certainties it could remain there through graduation. Extreme risk brings with it a host of new and/or tighter restrictions. Under the Oregon Department of Education’s graduation ceremony-specific rule book, such celebrations – if held outdoors – must follow the “sector guidance” for outdoor entertainment establishments. For Jackson County school districts, that means adhering to the “extreme risk” guidance, which allows for a maximum of 100 people – a slight bump after it was originally set at 50.

Before Jackson County moved to extreme risk April 30, local school districts were planning ceremonies that met the standards for “high risk” counties, which allowed for a 15% capacity of the given venue. Following that guidance Spiegelberg Stadium, where Medford was planning to host at least two ceremonies per high school, could fit 1,500 people and still be in compliance.

Local superintendents believe they can hold safe graduation ceremonies even with large numbers of spectators by following the RSSL guidance they’ve implemented in schools, which practice physical distancing and face coverings, among other COVID-19-preventative measures.

Medford superintendent Bret Champion said a group of superintendents from Southern Oregon – Champion, Ashland superintendent Samuel Bogdanove and Phoenix-Talent superintendent Brent Barry among them — were discussing the predicament with Sen. Jeff Golden, Rep. Pam Marsh and Rep. Kim Wallen on the day of Gov. Kate Brown’s announcement.

“We just made the case that we understand that it’s for a certain period of time,” Champion said, “but I’ll be honest though, it’s very confusing to us why we would be tied to a statewide hospitalization number. We don’t understand that. We also recognize that there’s a lot of planning that goes into graduations. Period. And when you are trying to have a graduation in a pandemic, that is times 10. So the question we had to our legislators was, is this something that we could all rally around, this idea of having ODE work with OHA and develop graduation guidelines, instead of just being automatically slammed with the county guidance.”

Golden, Marsh and Wallen were receptive, Champion said, and helped set up Thursday’s meeting between the superintendents and OHA director Patrick Allen.

The goal, said Bogdanove, is simply to explain to Allen the dilemma that local districts face in attempting to plan a graduation around guidelines that could fluctuate depending on county metrics. Most districts, like Ashland, began planning for graduation in February, and families that wish to attend also must be able to plan ahead.

“I don’t know what to expect because the health authority’s job is to make sure that we can do things safely,” Bogdanove said. “Our message to them is we believe that we can and that we can work under school guidance to do so. But ultimately that decision is up to the Oregon Health Authority and the governor.”

Ashland is planning to hold its graduation ceremony at Walter A. Phillips Field this year, along with a parade that was introduced last year and turned out to be a big hit.

Phoenix-Talent School District is also planning a ceremony at its football stadium, which was recently renovated. Barry said limiting a graduation ceremony to 100 people simply wouldn’t work.

“That’s just not something that we can really work with in graduating 200 kids and their families,” he said.

Barry said districts like his still have a lot work to do to get ready for graduation, and the prospect of being forced to alter plans at the last minute is daunting.

“Do we have to do (graduation) in shifts, can we only have 100 people and we have to have eight ceremonies?” he said. “Our senior class has not been together really in the last two years, and if there’s an opportunity and it’s allowable we would love to have all of our seniors in the same spot to graduate with a traditional ceremony. That’s obviously the hope and the goal.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.