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Medford graduation up in the air

Medford superintendent Bret Champion speaks to South Medford's 2020 graduating class during the school's virtual ceremony. Graduation ceremonies in Medford this year may look more like the pre-pandemic celebrations, but much depends on state mandates.(screen shot courtesy of Medford School District).
County’s move to ’extreme risk’ could alter celebration already in planning stages

The Medford School District has a plan in the works for graduation ceremonies that would look very much like scaled-down versions of pre-pandemic celebrations, and Superintendent Bret Champion was already lobbying the state to let the show go on even before Jackson County’s latest COVID-19 setback Tuesday.

Five days after MSD communications coordinator Natalie Hurd gave a detailed update on the district’s plans for graduation ceremonies, Champion said Tuesday morning that he has reached out to state legislators and the Oregon Department of Education to make sure those plans are not derailed by future COVID-19-related restrictions. The expected change Champion anticipated came through less than an hour later as Gov. Kate Brown moved 15 counties, Jackson County among them, to the “extreme risk” category starting Friday.

Extreme risk counties face the stiffest restrictions for public gatherings, and since school districts are required to follow the state’s outdoor entertainment guidance for outdoor graduation ceremonies Tuesday’s announcement could have major implications on local graduation celebrations. Jackson County can move back to “high risk” as early as May 7 if local COVID-19 metrics improve, but nothing’s for certain.

“We are knee deep in graduation planning and we are committed to maximizing the experience for our students and our families,” Champion said. “We are in a tricky spot though because they have chosen to tie … graduations to county metrics and all things with that and, not surprisingly, the Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance from ODE. It’s troubling to us, as graduation is an absolutely essential function of our schools and the dramatic difference is this — that instead of having 950 people outside at Spiegelberg Stadium we would need to move to 50 total people.”

Champions numbers are correct. The guidance for outdoor entertainment establishments allows for 15% capacity attendance in high risk counties and only 50 people in extreme risk counties. Since Spiegelberg Stadium’s capacity is about 10,000, the district has already formulated a plan to hold two to four graduation ceremonies for both North Medford High School and South Medford High School in order to accommodate a pre-pandemic level of guests. Those plans would be out the window, however, if Jackson County is still stuck in the extreme risk zone on graduation day, June 5.

Champion knew before Brown’s announcement Jackson County’s risk level would almost certainly be elevated to extreme based on metrics, but he is holding out hope that ODE will reconsider its guidance for graduation ceremonies in order to avoid a repeat of 2020, when MSD and other districts throughout the state held a combination of virtual and mini-graduation ceremonies that did not allow in-person attendance of medium- to large-sized family attendance.

What will graduation look like this year in Medford, should Jackson County remain in the extreme risk penalty box?

“I don’t know; I’ll be honest,” Champion said. “I would want to have a conversation with our board and with our community. I would want to understand what the allowances are and what that would look like. Right now we’re continuing to plan for this big event, talking to ODE, talking to our legislators, trying to get something to be viable for our families. Right now that’s where we are. So we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, but right now we are moving forward.”

Hurd said planning for multiple possibilities isn’t an option for an event the size of graduation.

“Usually, the planning for graduation starts in February,” she said. “So planning for something that takes so much time with these metrics that can fluctuate every couple of weeks is really tricky on our staff just logistically.”

Jackson County’s move into the extreme risk category will not force local schools currently open to in-person instruction to scale back those offerings. Medford schools are open to full in-person instruction five days a week. Other local districts are employing hybrid models weighted heavily to in-person instruction, mostly four days a week.

According to communications specialist Leah Thompson, about 900 seniors are set to graduate from Medford’s three high schools this year. Champion believes Medford’s smooth in-person rollout is proof that the district can manage a safe graduation ceremony.

“It is time for us to put our students first,” he said. “We know that COVID is real and COVID is moving and COVID’s doing its thing, and we continue to do the right thing in schools, and we are committed to do that. That’s an important distinction that we need people to understand, that as it stands right now, if we are moved to extreme risk ... we would be limited to 50 total people at this event. We can’t simultaneously plan a 950-person event and a 50-person event. That’s not how it works.

“Our families and our students need assurance of what’s going to happen at graduation, and we need that sooner rather than later. Graduation’s coming in early June, and we’re trying to work through all those details.”

The “Grad Walk” tradition, for which graduating seniors return to their former elementary school for a celebratory walk through the halls, is scheduled to be held June 3 starting at 9:15 a.m. The modified event will be held outside and be limited to about 15 minutes per site. But the district is hoping to retain the celebratory nature of the event any way it can.

“We are going to try to publish a route,” Hurd said, “so that like last year the community can come out and cheer as the buses are driving through town.”

Regarding prom, Hurd said details are still being worked out.

“There will be a celebration for students,” she said. “They’re tossing around different ideas like a night on the town, where seniors would get tickets to go eat and see a movie or something out in the community. We’ve gotten a lot of community support for celebrating our seniors. It’s not going to be a dance, but there will be a celebration for seniors to take the place of that.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at jzavala@rosebudmedia.com or 541-821-0829.