Kelso citizens are circulating an online petition asking the school district hold an in-person graduation later this summer, but school officials said they can’t if Gov. Jay Inslee’s social distancing orders remain in effect.
The orders bar gatherings of more than 10 people.
“Until the governor fully lifts the order ... Kelso School District cannot hold or organize an event that would violate these regulations,” Superintendent Mary Beth Tack and Kelso High School principal Christine McDaniel said in an April 28 letter to parents.
The petition had gathered 330 signatures by Wednesday afternoon, less than a day after it had been posted. School Board President Mike Haas said while he understood that families were upset, the board and district's main priority was keeping students safe and following state guidance.
"Our hearts just go out to the graduates," Haas said Wednesday. "It really is a special ceremony heaped with tradition. I understand the pain families are feeling that kids aren’t going to be able to participate in that on June 6."
The district said it would “revisit the possibility of an alternative celebration” if Inslee lifts the distancing restrictions prior to Aug. 15, but the letter said that appears unlikely. And that ceremony would be in addition to the online ceremony the district has scheduled for June 6, not in place of it.
“Based on the information we have been given by the governor and State Superintendent (Chris) Reykdal, these regulations will not be lifted anytime soon and perhaps even continue through the summer,” the letter said.
The petition, hosted on AVAAZ.org, is from “the class of 2020” and calls for “an in-person graduation or another creative idea to celebrate our graduation – but not a virtual graduation!” It is not clear which students, or how many, created the petition.
“Today, we received the devastating news that the class of 2020 will not hold an in-person graduation,” the petition says. “We understand that these decisions are difficult but would appreciate the opportunity to have an in-person graduation ... to give the class of 2020 the recognition we truly deserve.”
Tack and McDaniel wrote that the petition would be better directed at the governor, noting the district has no control over the rules. Graduation regularly draws more than 5,000 people, the district letter said, and an event of such size will likely not be sanctioned for some time.
“We want students and families to know if there was a way for us to hold a traditional in-person graduation ceremony we would; all options within the state regulations have been explored,” according to the letter.
And Haas added that while the district is open to holding an additional event later in the summer, it's vital to keep the June 6 event intact.
"Even if we could reschedule the big event until later in the summer, I don’t know if all kids could attend it," Haas said. "We need to do to best we can with what we’ve got."
The petition says while the COVID-19 pandemic has taught seniors “to never take anything for granted,” the class has already lost out on many senior events and wants graduation to stay the same. There are about 380 seniors in the Kelso High School.
“We have been waiting for graduation for the past 12 years,” the petition says. “Please share this petition to make our special day possible.”
The district said in the letter that it remains committed to the “long-standing Kelso tradition of honoring each and every Kelso graduate,” and pointed out that every school around the state was facing the same thing.
“ ‘We Are’ means something to us and the traditions we hold dear are important,” the letter said. “Our best effort and greatest care has gone into planning our virtual graduation, to ensure that Kelso High School students have something to mark this day.”