Graduation plans still up in the air

Efforts to schedule a graduation ceremony for Iola High School have run into roadblocks, most stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. School board members discussed the frustrating situation Monday.

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Local News

May 12, 2020 - 10:04 AM

Iola High School seniors Brody Nemecek, Sadrie Overall and Kelsey Morrison tell USD 257 board members what they want in a graduation ceremony, although it’s still not known if any ceremony will be allowed in the coming months. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Here’s hoping the third time’s a charm.

The USD 257 school board will try again to come up with some sort of graduation ceremony, after COVID-19 restrictions canceled the original May 9 graduation for Iola High School’s Class of 2020, and after state officials put the kibosh on an alternate drive-through/walk-through ceremony scheduled for Saturday.

This time, IHS Principal Scott Crenshaw will incorporate the help of a group of seniors who came up with their own graduation plan in protest to the district’s canceled May 16 plan.

Yes, that’s a lot of plans. And there’s still no guarantee the state will allow any of them.

THE DISTRICT announced Wednesday a plan to allow each senior and a small number of family members to drive to the school, then walk into the gym to receive a diploma. The plan was approved by the county health officer, but state officials on Thursday clarified that no graduation ceremonies — of any sort — are allowed until May 18.

But even then, the state will limit gatherings to 30 people or fewer, making it impossible to recognize the class of more than 80 seniors, plus their families and school officials. Those restrictions are scheduled to end June 1, but an outbreak of illness could force the state to shut down again. Health officials have warned social distancing measures could be needed throughout the summer, and possibly longer.

Waiting until later in the summer to have graduation makes it more difficult for all seniors to attend. Some students are leaving for the military. Some are going on mission trips. Some may move or start careers, or leave for college.

IN THE SHORT window between its announcement and cancellation, the district’s May 16 plan drew the ire of a group of parents and seniors, who met separately Wednesday to come up with their own plans. They presented results of a survey of 39 seniors, about half of the class.

The seniors offered an alternate graduation plan to the board Monday night. The students, with senior Brody Nemececk as spokesperson, asked for permission to use the football stadium for a more traditional ceremony in late June or early July, with or without the district’s help.

“We have the ability to organize and plan this graduation with a team of people who support this idea but we would really like to celebrate our accomplishments with you guys, too,” Nemecek read from a prepared statement. 

“The reason we want to have a physical graduation instead of a walk through or virtual alternative is because my class wants to hear our names called individually, walk across the stage and throw our caps in the air as a team together. Most of us have grown up together in elementary school, middle school and now finally high school, holding each other up through failures and celebrating accomplishments. Graduation is our opportunity to reflect on those memories and be together as a class for a final time before we go out into the world as young adults and leaders.”

SCHOOL BOARD members both welcomed and admonished the seniors as they presented their plan.

Board president Dan Willis, Superintendent Stacey Fager and Crenshaw cautioned the seniors that factors beyond anyone’s control limited their options. The board has to consider numerous concerns about health, safety and more. Organizing a graduation ceremony is no simple feat, they said.

“There was no intention to slight anyone. Nobody is trying to rob anyone of anything. This is what we were hearing from the state, and all we’re trying to do is create a scenario where every student has an opportunity to walk across the graduation stage,” Crenshaw said. “What frustrates me is the reaction. I support activism, but activism takes communication with the decision-makers. I don’t feel that took place.”

THE BOARD offered two options: Having a drive-through/walk-through ceremony May 23, or scheduling a more traditional ceremony June 20, with the caveat that the state may force them to abandon that plan, too. That June 20 date would be final, though. If the plan falls through, the district would do either a virtual or drive-through ceremony on that date.

There was little support for the May 23 option, but the board didn’t officially set the date at June 20 either. The date is still to be determined.

“We don’t hold out hope things are going to be different in the future, but we would consider scheduling something,” Crenshaw said.

The seniors still wanted to arrange their own backup plan, though, with a student- and parent-organized activity at the football stadium at a later date. 

Board member Jen Taylor — who, like Fager, is a parent of a senior — pointed out that if the governor continues to restrict mass gatherings, the district cannot allow anyone to organize an event on school property that violates her order. 

“It’s the district’s responsibility to do graduation. I understand what you’re saying but if we aren’t allowed then you aren’t going to be allowed to be there either. The restrictions that are in place will apply to you, too,” Taylor said. “We want to give you guys as normal of an experience as possible. You deserve it. We’re proud of you. But there are so many things beyond our control.”

If a traditional graduation ceremony isn’t possible, Fager said the district could recognize seniors at some point after the health crisis passes, such as at a football game next fall.

Taylor also insisted that the district organize some sort of special recognition for students who are leaving for the military, as they likely would not be able to attend a ceremony.

WILLIS directed Crenshaw, who is leaving at the end of the school year to serve as superintendent for another district, to work with the seniors and see if they could come to some sort of agreement on a graduation plan. They are to report back to the board in two weeks.

“We got a reprieve for all of us to look at this,” Willis said. “Mr. Crenshaw, this will be the last great deed you do for Iola High School. Let’s see what plans they can present to us. I don’t want to shut the door on these kids.”

Board member Tony Leavitt agreed.

“I think the whole board is supportive of having a real graduation. We want it, probably not quite as bad as you guys do, but it’s close,” he said. “We’re on board with what you want. But if the virus comes to Allen County, we may not be able to do anything but virtual.”

Iola High School senior Allie Fager demonstrates her prose performance that she would have taken to the state Forensics competition this year. The state event was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Vickie Moss

IN OTHER news, the board:

— Heard a presentation about the IHS Forensics team, whose year was cut short by the pandemic. This year’s team had 27 students who earned 95 individual medals and took first or second place at each of the seven tournaments they attended. Two tournaments were canceled. IHS had 19 students qualify for state in 21 events. Six of the seniors have gone to state every year since they were freshmen. Sponsor Regina Chriestensen said she expected the team would have placed in the top 5 at state.

— Set a special virtual meeting at 4 p.m. May 21 with Coonrod and Associates, the construction manager of the school bond projects, to open bids for the new science and technology building.

— Heard an update from school principals as they head into the final week of school under the continuous learning plan. Though student participation in virtual meetings had dropped off in recent weeks, all schools saw a significant increase in families who picked up their final learning packets and returned worksheets to be graded. That likely was because the schools also gave out yearbooks. The schools will allow students to return to the school buildings later this week for a check-out process that includes returning Chromebooks and other materials, picking up any items left at the school and paying past-due fees.

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