CASA GRANDE — Superintendent Steve Bebee reiterated to the Casa Grande Union High School District Governing Board on Tuesday that his office and the graduation committees of both high schools looked at several ways to hold an in-person graduation ceremony for seniors this year.
But they found that most in-person ceremonies just wouldn’t meet current federal and state social distancing guidelines and the prohibitions on large gatherings at this time.
However, Bebee said that by pushing out the dates of graduation to June 16 and 18, the schools are hoping that those restrictions may be lifted or reduced and the district may be able to hold a modified or full in-person ceremony for seniors. If not, a virtual graduation will go forward and the schools will look for a way to honor seniors in the fall, possibly at Homecoming.
“There’s nobody in this district that wouldn’t prefer to see us have a traditional graduation for our seniors. Everybody would prefer a traditional graduation,” Bebee told the board.
He reminded the board and people watching the livestream of the meeting several times that the state and federal governments were in charge of the social distancing guidelines and were responsible for closing the schools, not the district.
He said graduation and all of the other celebrations that come with senior year were at the top of all the administrators’ and principals’ minds the day after the schools were closed.
“No decisions were made out of our lack of desire or our inability to run a modified in-person graduation,” he said. “We can and we’ve talked about all the possible options and again current regulations don’t permit that.”
The district has looked for other ways to honor seniors, Bebee said.
Every night the district has turned on the stadium lights at 8:20 p.m., or 20:20 in military time, at both high schools for 20 minutes, he said. Graduates at both schools will be getting yard signs to alert residents that a graduate lives in the home. The district is also honoring seniors with blurbs about the students on the high schools’ and district’s websites and social media. Administrators from both schools have also gone to the homes of the valedictorian and salutatorian to honor them, he said.
“As far as our rationale to move to an online format, the reason that we went that way is because of the guidelines that have been set for us and you have to remember at the time, we didn’t know until April 29 what would happen with our stay-at-home orders,” Bebee said.
On April 29, Gov. Doug Ducey extended the stay-at-home order until May 15 but also started to loosen some restrictions on businesses.
Bebee pointed out that even after the state reaches the third phase of the federal guidelines on reopening the economy, the restrictions on large social gatherings would prohibit the district from holding an in-person graduation ceremony.
Even if the district did a ceremony without an audience, there would be more than 10 people on the stage and schools wouldn’t be able to have all of the graduates sit together because there are more than 400 graduates at each school, which violates the prohibition against large gatherings, he said.
Bebee also told the board that he consulted with the district’s attorney, who also warned against having an in-person graduation.
Knowing that the stay-at-home order had been continued and that large gatherings were still prohibited, Bebee said, he and the administration of each school tried to come up with a way to honor graduates, and an online graduation ceremony was one solution.
Bebee acknowledged that a lot of parents and students have expressed some anxiety around what a virtual graduation might look like.
“People don’t know what this looks like and so ‘If I don’t know, it’s just a bad thing,’” he said.
He said he would try to get some examples out to parents of the ceremony.
The ceremony will have all of the parts of a traditional graduation including all of the welcoming statements and speeches from students and administrators, but it won’t have the audience or the graduates crossing the stage, he said. Instead of having graduates cross the stage, as each student’s name is called, the page and video that the student created will be flashed on the screen.
Contrary to what some people may think, holding a virtual graduation isn’t easy, Bebee said.
“I can tell you from my principals and everybody else it’s ten times harder to do this graduation right now than it would have been to just roll out a traditional graduation the way we’ve done it year after year after year. It’s taken a lot of time and effort and there’s also been some delays,” he said.
Bebee said he’s also heard a lot of ideas from community members and parents about holding a graduation ceremony and thanked them for their ideas and offers to help.
“I haven’t seen one yet that fits within the current social distancing guidelines that we have to follow,” he said.
Every high school in the county is doing a virtual graduation, he said. But CGUHSD is the only district in Pinal County that has moved its graduation dates to buy some time “before we have to, for sure, say ‘no way’ to a traditional graduation.”
Board member Jack Henness asked if the district could do something like Tucson Unified School District. Tucson is holding a virtual graduation on its scheduled graduation date but is also reserving a date in June to hold an in-person ceremony, if social distancing guidelines allow, he said.
Bebee said because of a number of factors — the delayed delivery of the graduation caps and gowns, having each senior create their own page and 10-second video and recording the speeches of the valedictorians and salutatorians and administrators — the company putting together the virtual graduation won’t have enough time to meet the original graduation date.
“So knowing that we were already going to have to push it (the dates of graduation), what we have decided to do is to land on those dates (in June) and if we cannot come together because social distancing still does not allow that, (and) there’s not any way to do some modified version of an in-person graduation, digital graduation will run,” he said. “If we can do something in-person, we will do something in-person and run the digital graduation.”
He wasn’t sure what an in-person graduation at that time would look like, but the graduation committees at each school will start work on the possibility, Bebee said. The district would also communicate with families and students ahead of time if an in-person ceremony was possible, so they could be ready for it.
If the district was unable to do an in-person ceremony in June, the schools might look at honoring the Class of 2020 in the fall, Bebee said — perhaps at the start of the school year or at Homecoming.
“Again we can’t put any ‘for sure,’” he said.
The city has also reached out to the district and offered to honor graduates during the Fourth of July fireworks show, if the city is able to hold a show at that time, Bebee said.
Henness asked if the district could bring parents or students into the planning process. Seniors from student leadership have been involved in the planning process from the beginning, Bebee said.
Henness also asked if Bebee would communicate to students, parents and the public about the situation the district found itself in surrounding graduation.
Henness said he’s had at least one conversation with a parent who seemed confused on what the district was planning to do with graduation.
“I think we all agree 100% as a person that we would all love to have a graduation. We would all love to see the kids walk,” Henness said. “And I think what you’re trying to do right now is at least offer some alternatives and what could be potentials in the future and not completely close the door on not having a physical walk-through graduation. We need to communicate that to them.”
Bebee said he plans to meet with principals on communicating directly with parents about graduation and that he would put out a press release to the media. The press release on Thursday included much of the same information as Bebee’s letter about graduation in the district’s April newsletter, as well as links to the website where student profiles are being posted and a paragraph on the possibility of an in-person graduation ceremony.
“It’s just a very, very sad time in our country. There are high school students across the country, there are college students across the country that are not going to be able to participate this year in a traditional graduation because of this pandemic,” Bebee told the board.
Casa Grande Union High School and Vista Grande High School graduating seniors will have student profiles and photos for each school at:
If you are a senior at Vista Grande, please send your information to Jennifer Korsten at firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you are a senior at Casa Grande Union, send your information to Brian Mabb at email@example.com.