LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio wants about 6,200 seniors to have in-person high school graduation ceremonies in late May, he said during a Friday news conference.
The gatherings, if approved, will be smaller, held at school facilities and follow public health guidance because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced JCPS and other Kentucky school districts to close their classrooms and cancel ceremonies like in-person graduations near the end of the 2019-20 school year.
At the time, Pollio said he wanted to bring back seniors who graduated in 2020 at some point so they could walk in caps and gowns for their high school diplomas.
Pollio will present his graduation recommendation to the Jefferson County Board of Education during its meeting Tuesday.
"There may be multiple ceremonies at each school, but the great news is the graduating seniors of 2021, with our board approval, will be having in-person graduation ceremonies, will have the opportunity to walk across the stage," he said.
Jazmine Winn, a senior at Iroquois High School, welcomed Friday's news and said she hopes the school board will back Pollio's recommendation.
"Try and keep our feelings in mind because I have friends in the senior class of last year who were kind of devastated," Winn said during Friday's news conference.
As a former high school principal, Pollio said he understands the importance of commencement ceremonies as "the culmination of four years of work."
Pollio's proposal calls for graduations to be held on May 27 and May 28 with June 1 as a potential make-up date due to weather.
Schools will be asked to hold ceremonies at JCPS outdoor stadiums like football fields, allot tickets for students and divide students into groups based on whatever guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Kentucky Department of Education are in place, according to JCPS.
Schools that do not have outdoor space for graduation ceremonies, such as the Phoenix School of Discovery and J. Graham Brown School, will use the football stadium at Doss High School, Pollio said.
Pollio's proposal only pertains to the Class of 2021 for now. JCPS is still discussing ways to honor the Class of 2020, whose senior years were upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
"There will be some information coming out about how we plan on recognizing the Class of 2020 as a part of these ceremonies as well," Pollio said.
Pollio informed school board members, who voted 4-3 in February to gradually reopen classrooms in JCPS to in-person instruction, of his recommendation ahead of Friday's press conference, he said.
He believes declining coronavirus cases locally plus the district's successful return to classroom learning will smooth the path for his graduation recommendation.
"Our board wants what's best for students while ensuring safety and health, without a doubt, and I respect that out of each and every one of them, but I believe they'll support this plan," Pollio said.
COVID-19 cases have steadily declined in Jefferson County in recent weeks. The local COVID-19 incidence rate was among the state's highest and regularly topped a weekly average of more than 25 new cases per 100,000 residents for months, putting Jefferson County firmly in Kentucky's "red zone" for coronavirus transmission.
As of Thursday, Jefferson County's coronavirus incidence rate was 10.9 new daily COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents based on a seven-day average.
Elementary classrooms at JCPS reopened on a hybrid schedule this week, with early childhood programs and middle and high schools set to reopen on hybrid learning schedules on Monday and April 5 respectively.
Pollio, who originally recommended elementary students return to classes for five days a week, has said he could suggest revisions to district's reopening plan as local COVID-19 caseloads improve. That decision will rest with the school board.
The CDC revised its recommendations for social distancing inside schools Friday, halving the previously required 6 feet to 3 feet except for middle and high schools in communities with high levels of COVID-19 community spread.
KDE said Friday that the state's "Healthy at School" guidance will be adjusted accordingly early next week.
🏫: @CDCgov updated its #COVID19 guidance for schools based on new data. The guidance says schools may decrease the distance between students from 6 to 3 feet in classrooms if everyone is masked. #KyEd1/2 pic.twitter.com/SbqcpL0QqB— KY Dept of Education (@KyDeptofEd) March 19, 2021
"If that 3 feet comes out, it gives schools a little more flexibility in the things that they can do, and we're talking about that," Pollio said before the agency announced changes to its recommendations. "We don't want to change until we know that we get that in guidance from the CDC."
JCPS is also developing recommendations for high school proms, another key event for seniors. Social distancing during such dances is "difficult," Pollio said.
"We're going to keep our options open and see where we are in three or four weeks," he said.
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