READING - School officials advocated for hosting a modified in-house graduation ceremony for the RMHS Class of 2020 later this month, when graduates can invite two guests to sit beside them at the high school’s main turf field for the rite-of-passage event.
Though high school seniors have known since late May to reserve July 26 as their likely graduation day, RMHS Principal Kate Boynton for the first time publicly disclosed some of events logistical details during a Board of Health meeting earlier this week.
Under the proposal, which has not yet been sanctioned by the Board of Health, no more than 1,000 people, including the 300-plus strong senior class and their guests, will attend an abbreviated evening ceremony that will begin at on Sunday, July 26 at 7:15 p.m. — just when the strong summer sun will begin setting.
In case of inclement weather, an Aug. 2 rlindate is proposed under the same circumstances.
“The sun will be on the horizon, so the field will be starting to cool off. [The hot summer heat] was definitely part of our considerations,” Boynton said. “We’re proposing that each graduate only be allowed to have two guests with them. They’ll sit with them in a family pod on the turf.”
Besides requiring all guests to pre-register for the event, which will ensure the crowd size is capped at the below 1,000-person limit and allows for possible post-event COVID-19 contact tracing — each family unit will be required to wear mask masks and will be seated at least six-feet apart from one another.
RMHS officials also plan to carefully manage access in and out of the event and ensure the graduates and guests adhere to social distancing protocols while coming from the parking lot and later while returning to their vehicles.
“They’ll be controlled access with two points of entry. They’ll be no live band. [Music] will be a pre-recorded pomp and circumstance, and there will be very short student speeches of three-to-five minutes,” Boynton said.
“At the end of the ceremony, they’ll be [exiting] by rows. They’ll be no throwing of caps, and everyone has already been advised about those guidelines,” she added.
As the RMHS principal explained to the local public health officials, much of that delay in outlining the proposal was due to the long wait for guidance from the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), which in late May prohibited any public school district from hosting a full-class ceremony before July 19.
The school principal explained that after the COVID-19 pandemic deprived the Class of 2020 from so many other last year traditions, local parents and officials have been determined to let the seniors officially gather together one last time during a late summer graduation.
“Some communities did car parades [or organized graduations with] smaller groups. Other communities like Reading decided to have an in-person graduation to allow the whole class to be together,” said Boynton, explaining that Melrose and Woburn have taken a similar approach.
Most importantly, proponents of the in-person ceremony say, graduates will be allowed to sit on the turf field, walk across the stage to obtain their diplomas, and enjoy traditional speeches from class members.
Schools’ Superintendent Dr. John Doherty and Boynton will also give short addresses.
The honorees will also be able to celebrate the occasion with two immediate family members or other guests, and a professional photographer has been obtained by the district to snap one official photograph of each family group to commemorate the occasion.
Generally, Board of Health members were receptive to the plan, especially given that the event is being carefully planned with COVID-19 preventative measures in mind.
According to Board of Health Chair Emily Shonkoff, she wants to be sure that all guests follow facial covering protocols, as she believes some citizens are under the impression that masks are not needed when people are distanced at least six-feet apart.
Shonkoff pointed out that while the rule is generally true for small outdoor gatherings, there is an elevated risk of spreading the virus between unmasked people when hundreds of people are clustered together.
“I knew we’re constantly given guidance that as long as everyone is six-feet away from each other outside, it’s okay. But given the density of people on that field, if people are [medically able] to ear the masks, we should advocate for that,” she said.
Chiming in on the discussion, Doherty emphasized that all guests will be required to wear masks, as DESE’s graduation protocols mandate facial coverings.
Board of Health member Paula Curren also sought assurances that all graduation attendees will enter and exit the stadium in an orderly fashion without opportunities to gather and socialize in larger groups, while associate member Kevin Sexton reminded school officials that no food or beverages should be allowed at the event — the plan did include plans to distribute donated bottles of water.