Limited pomp amid difficult circumstance


Schools get creative with limited audience, 'drive-in' ceremonies to salvage graduation



There won’t be any mortarboards tossed into the air after turning tassels.

There won’t be group photos with friends, standing close with arms around each other.

There won't be flowers handed out or beach balls tossed around the crowd during speeches.

But there will be graduation, on the date already marked on the calendar.

The class of 2020 at both Ridgway and Ouray high schools will graduate this month. And though the ceremonies will look different than originally planned, they're moving forward the best way organizers can manage.

And unlike everything else that seems to be canceled due to COVID-19, these days, graduation still stands.

Ouray School is opting for a graduation in Fellin Park on May 24, with limited audience and social distancing, while Ridgway Secondary School will have its graduation at the Ouray County Fairgrounds on May 29 “drive-in” style, where attendees stay in their vehicles to maintain social distancing.

The state’s rule mandating at least 6 feet of “safe” social distance between people and the public health order limiting mass gatherings to 10 or fewer people presented unique challenges to the schools in organizing graduations. They had to get creative to comply with these requirements, which wouldn’t allow a more traditional graduation like the one Ouray holds in its gymnasium or even an outside large gathering for Ridgway.

After brainstorming and consulting with county health officials, the schools have chosen their creative plans for graduation in the time of coronavirus.

After meeting with Ridgway seniors in a Zoom gathering, Ridgway Superintendent Susan Lacy said she and others organizing the event are striving to keep “some of the heart” of the program. The main event will take place at the County Fairgrounds on May 29 at 6 p.m. and will feature a limited vehicle audience and a vehicle procession. Ridgway has 26 seniors in the class of 2020.

Lacy described the event as a “drive-in model of graduation.” Speeches will be given with a limited amount of people on stage who will maintain social distancing.

Plans are being finalized for a celebratory parade following the ceremony. Parents are currently working on organizing the route, but the hope is that residents can stand outside their homes and wave and cheer as the graduates go by.

Ouray School graduation organizers mapped out Fellin Park on Tuesday, measuring how far apart they could space each of their 13 graduates and their families, with each group having 10 or fewer people. These "pods" of graduates will be considered separate events, so instead of counting the big graduation as the event limited to 10 attendees, health officials have agreed that each graduate's pod counts as its own event. As long as the pods are adequately spaced, the individual graduations can proceed. They're still determining some details, including the exact time of the ceremony.

Ouray School has a careful set of procedures to limit infection risk, according to teacher Dee James, who is also one of the class of 2020's sponsors and is helping to organize graduation.

Strict protocol will be used for organizing attendees, who will stay in their cars in the parking lot until they are led in small groups to their mapped-out sections of grass in a horseshoe pattern facing the gazebo on the west side of the park. Separate microphones will be used for speeches to minimize contagion risk. And when it’s time to hand out diplomas, Lead Administrator Kenneth Nelson will take the tubs of diplomas, which have been untouched for 48 hours, carefully sanitize his hands, and distribute them one by one to graduates who stay in their assigned areas. Everyone will be required to wear masks.

There won’t be any walking across the stage for graduates, but it’s as close to “normal” as they can get, given the circumstances, James said.

“We’re just thankful that we get to do anything,” she said.

The plan was approved by health officials and was selected from a list of ideas the class generated.

And while some other, larger schools are postponing their graduations until August or later, or holding them virtually in online ceremonies, James is grateful the school can organize something meaningful for students that will allow them to wear their caps and gowns, take photos and receive diplomas on the date originally scheduled. She said students were adamant about keeping the date if possible.

“I think they were trying to keep it as normal as it could be,” she said.

She said Ouray School is fortunate to have a smaller class to make an in-person ceremony possible.

"There's more than one time when I've thought our small school was a blessing," she said. "Right now we're definitely in a better spot than some."

Ouray is known for having an intimate, personalized graduation for classes, in which the graduates feel more like siblings than classmates. James said it's important to find a way to celebrate them, even in a pandemic, and recognize the connection they have to each other and the community.

"They deserve the same treatment as everybody else," she said. "It's kind of a send-off, in a way. We are honoring their contributions."