It’s a go.
El Paso County high school seniors will be able to cheer, whoop and live it up with their classmates during in-person graduation ceremonies this year after all.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and Gov. Jared Polis late Thursday night approved the variance request the Board of El Paso County Commissioners submitted last week, which proposed alternative ceremonies be permitted under strict criteria to prevent possible transmission of the deadly novel coronavirus.
The variance waives the ban on group gatherings of more than 10 people for in-person graduations, under conditions that continue to observe social-distancing procedures and other limitations.
It’s the first and only such allowance in the state for the Class of 2020, said Dr. Leon Kelly, county coroner who has been assisting the El Paso County health department with policies and procedures during the coronavirus pandemic.
The decision comes as “a direct result of our local public health department’s leadership and our community’s commitment to control the spread of the virus,” Kelly said.
The application included evidence that the pandemic has slowed in El Paso County, hospitals have adequate capacity to handle cases, widespread testing is available and the community has the ability to trace individuals exposed to the infection.
The county’s 15 public school districts worked with Kelly and other health officials and elected leaders for three weeks to complete the application, which took a week to work through the state’s process for consideration.
“Our opportunity to collectively celebrate the accomplishments of our graduates in meaningful, albeit nontraditional, ways is the culmination of collaboration with our diverse school districts and their incredible leadership that was committed to making sure this watershed moment and rite of passage in these young people’s lives endures even in the face of a pandemic,” he said.
March 13 was the last day Pikes Peak region students attended classes at schools, which then closed because of coronavirus restrictions and switched to distance learning.
Typical celebratory events such as prom, senior breakfasts, award ceremonies, theater and musical performances and the spring sports season were missing from this year’s senior experience.
“They've had so much taken from them already,” Kelly said. “They need this.”
Under the rules, only graduating seniors and minimal staff will be allowed to attend ceremonies, which must be held outdoors. Parents, other relatives and friends will not be allowed on the site, and schools must provide a virtual broadcast for those who do not attend. A virtual backup plan also is required.
The only added guidance from the state health department, Kelly said, is that students who participate avoid at-risk family members or populations for two weeks following their ceremonies.
Among other regulations for ceremonies:
• All students and staff must meet 6-foot social distancing throughout the event, including when entering and exiting the ceremony.
• Participants must wear cloth face coverings at all times, except during individual photographs by an official photographer.
• No handing of diplomas or other physical contact will be allowed.
• No associated social gatherings of students or staff are permitted before or after the ceremony.
• A behavior contract must be signed by students and parents concerning risk mitigation. The form will include a health screening survey containing questions about fever, cough, congestion, chills or other symptoms exhibited by the student or others in the household in the previous 14 days. Any students with affirmative answers will be excluded from participating.
Hoping for approval, schools have created proposals for ceremonies that El Paso County health officials are reviewing to ensure compliance.
“We will continue to work with our schools to develop and approve plans that will ensure safe and impactful graduation ceremonies throughout the spring and summer,” Kelly said.
Tom Gregory, superintendent of Academy School District 20, called the approval “great news” for seniors.
“We are both thankful and excited to honor and celebrate the Class of 2020 with an in-person ceremony,” he said. “While many of their end-of-year celebrations were canceled, this allows them the chance to participate in at least one of the rites of passage each senior should enjoy.”
Said Colorado Springs School District 11 spokeswoman Devra Ashby: “They’ve had so much stripped from them of their senior year during the coronavirus, so we are appreciative of our county and state officials working in partnership with area school districts to make this a reality.”
D-11 will provide both virtual ceremonies during next week's regularly scheduled graduations, as well as in-person ceremonies for seniors at Garry Berry Stadium. They’ll be the first ceremonies in more than 20 years at the stadium, Ashby said. D-11 normally holds its graduations at The Broadmoor World Arena.
“The pictures and video from the ceremonies will most likely be used for historical documentation,” Ashby said. “We know we will be talking about the Class of 2020 forever.”