The Class of 2021 will see a small return to normalcy with in-person graduation and promotion ceremonies in the local school district.

From adult school graduates to fifth-graders advancing to middle school, the Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint Unified School District was directed by its board members at a special meeting last week to proceed with plans for in-person commencement and promotion ceremonies.

“I am excited that they are going to get to have a graduation that seems real,” board clerk Patty Ingram said after trustees unanimously voted in favor of in-person ceremonies at the April 13 special meeting.

“I really look forward to graduation this year and I hope that we can really give our kids the most normal sense of activity that we can for them,” board president Mike Snellings said.

While most of the discussion focused on Yucaipa High School, the biggest ceremony in the district, the motion to plan for the largest possible gatherings, under state and county guidelines, for upcoming celebrations also included commencements at Yucaipa Adult School, Oak View High School and Green Valley High School and promotions for fifth- and eighth-graders. Ceremonies may also be moved off campus, depending on the situation.

Under health and safety guidelines in place at the time of the April 13 special board meeting, face coverings would be required along with social distancing of six feet between graduates and between households in attendance.

Eric Vreeman, assistant superintendent of Business Services who has been overseeing the district’s health and safety protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic, noted that both San Bernardino and Riverside counties were in the orange or moderate tier, as of April 13.

“In the orange tier, you can have 33% capacity. If we were to have a graduation in the orange tier with 550 graduates, it would be four guests per graduate,” Vreeman said, about the Yucaipa High commencement on June 9. “Right now, as it sits, we are eligible for up to four guests per graduate, under the current conditions.”

Ingram asked how many tickets are sold per family at a typical YHS graduation.

“Typically, we issue approximately 4,500 tickets, with approximately 5,000 people total in the stadium,” Vreeman said. “It would be about half of that, if we move forward with stadium seating as well as field seating … The graduates have to sit six feet apart. Households have to be six feet apart, but the four people can be next to each other.”

Households will need to pre-register and seats will be assigned. Guests and graduates will be asked to self-screen before attending commencements or promotions, but temperature checks will not be taken.

“No handshaking or hugs,” Vreeman said, about other protocols. “After graduation, I don’t know what that will look like.”

Should guidelines change, Snellings wondered if there would be enough time for Yucaipa High Principal Shad Kirkland and staff to expand seating capacity for more guests.

“Things are going to change,” Snellings said. “How much advance notice do you need to plan a graduation on (June) 9th?”

“We very, very much can still pull this together,” Kirkland said. “We still have the time.”

“If the current permissions allow us four per household tickets and that is our baseline, that is our worst-case scenario, turn us loose on the work and let’s get going,” he said, continuing. “If the provisions between now and then loosen up … if four turns into six and six turns into eight, then yes, we can continue to grow that capacity. But … people need to know we cannot make those guarantees.”

Vreeman was hopeful new graduation guidelines would be received before the end of the year, as COVID-19 cases in California are trending down.

Streaming YHS ceremony

For YHS seniors who do not want to attend commencement in person, they will have the option to live stream the ceremony.

“We want to work on something for our kids that are not able to come to in-person graduation,” Superintendent Cali Binks said to the board.

Board member Cathy Bogh Coate suggested adding the names of seniors not present to the live stream.

“Maybe we could tag on at the end the individual students who did not want to come and keep the live stream going and just announce their names,” Coate said.

After the district knows how many YHS seniors do not want to attend graduation in-person, Binks said more options would be looked at, as the number of students might play a factor in what is possible or feasible.

“I think I would like to have some options for kids who are opting out because they are concerned,” Snellings said. “I don’t think they should be punished and they should have some avenue to join the graduation.”

Other live streaming concerns included board member Debbie Miller asking if graduates would have an opportunity to lower their masks so those watching online could see their faces.

“Is there any way when they go across the stage, just for photos, can they take their masks down?” she asked.

Vreeman replied that last year a photo-op area was set up right after graduates received their diplomas, or diploma cases, to pose with their masks off for pictures.

“We have a lot of options,” he said, assuring her a photo-op area would be set up.

Miller seemed satisfied with the response.

“Just to see their faces, especially for the families that are watching it live to not see this,” she said, pointing at her mask.

Other YHS concerns

Board members also briefly considered two Yucaipa High graduations so more guests could attend. However, it was quickly decided that would be a big headache or “nightmare,” as Miller described it.

Delaying YHS graduation, the largest ceremony in the district, until June 15 when the state may possibly loosen guidelines was also briefly considered.

“I don’t really want to bet on what is going to be so different on June 15 because I don’t trust folks,” Snellings said. “I don’t know that changing it six days is going to have a large effect on the ceremony itself.”

Binks also thought there might be issues with families already making vacation plans and district staff, who would be needed at graduation, being unavailable a week after the last day of school.

The district did commit to looking into if portable bleachers would allow more guests than sitting on the field.

Miller wanted to know if it would be possible for seniors to sit three feet apart from classmates rather than six feet.

Vreeman was again hopeful new graduation guidelines would be received before June 9, but said he could not guarantee anything.

What do seniors want?

Before district staff and the board discussed the possibility of in-person graduation and promotion ceremonies, a couple of community members spoke in public comment and more than 20 emails were read into the record on the topic. Most again focused on Yucaipa High and were in favor of in-person graduation, however, there were a few emails that requested a drive-through commencement similar to last year’s.

Principal Kirkland confirmed he was receiving comments at the high school primarily in favor of in-person graduation.  

“The letters that President Snellings read are very, very indicative of the communications we are having at the high school,” Kirkland said.

Alyssa Torrance, a senior at Yucaipa High, spoke during public comment at the special board meeting.

“We haven’t really gotten much going this year,” she said. “I feel like an in-person graduation would be a really amazing way to give us some sort of recognition for all of the work that we have put in and also a way for us to actually see our friends and our teachers that we dearly miss.”

“With an in-person graduation, whether social distancing or not, we can still see our friends,” Torrance said, continuing.

Student board member Angela Fan, another senior at YHS, shared her perspective on in-person graduation.

“Obviously, it has been a really, really weird year, but things have started to look up,” Fan said, noting high school sports are back in action and the return to some in-person learning last week.

“I think all students and families are kind of anxiously looking forward to future events that could give us a somewhat traditional end to this really weird school year,” Fan said. “Obviously, for seniors that includes graduation … I know a lot of students have differing opinions on in-person graduation or drive-through, so I feel like we are all just looking for something that can accommodate all of us.”

As new health and safety guidance is received, Binks and her staff will continue to update the board and work with principals on commencements and promotions.

“This is a good start for us as we go into the graduation, promotion, awards and recognition ceremony season,” she said.

To view the complete meeting, visit yucaipaschools.com

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