Graduation ceremonies draw thousands despite COVID-19 pandemic fears

High schools nationwide have canceled or postponed traditional graduation ceremonies to avoid worsening the spread of the new coronavirus, but some are going ahead with full-fledged springtime commencement exercises as usual, with tweaks to account for health concerns.

Thousands of graduates, parents, siblings and grandparents will gather at a nearly 11,000-seat stadium on Wednesday and Thursday nights in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover, where two high schools — among the largest in Alabama — planned traditional commencement exercises despite COVID-19.

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Two schools in nearby cities held ceremonies Tuesday, with chairs for more than 540 graduates spread apart across a football field at Thompson High and a keynote address by the state school superintendent. Few of the attendees wore protective face masks, and seniors hugged and gathered in tight groups of friends for pictures.

Dr. Michael Saag, who treats infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said the threat of spreading the coronavirus poses too great a risk to hold such ceremonies. Virus carriers without symptoms could unknowingly infect others, he said.

Saag has a special perspective: He survived COVID-19 after being infected in March.

“Having had this before, even if you survive it, which most people do, it’s still a pretty harrowing thing to go through,” said Saag, now back at work.

School officials in Hoover announced the ceremonies in the city's open-air baseball stadium, after Gov. Kay Ivey ended state restrictions on the size of group gatherings, as long as people from different households stay 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart.

Hundreds of chairs for graduates have been spread across the dirt infield; spectators will sit on metal bleachers or in blue stadium seats. Red tape blocks seats to be avoided.

Kathy Murphy, the city school superintendent, said the ceremonies will comply with the rules.

“All of our students will be celebrated, even those who choose not to come, and we understand that. But we will call their names, their names will appear on the large Jumbotron,” Murphy said in a video posted online.

Since Gov. Kay Ivey eased restrictions in recent weeks, cases have risen in parts of Alabama including the capital city, health officials say. There are large numbers of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Montgomery and Mobile, two of the state’s population centers, they note.

Statewide, Alabama has added as many as 350 new cases per day in the past two weeks, and the state’s average number of new cases has continued to climb. It’s unclear how much of the rise is due to increased testing or increased disease.

Schools in California planned virtual graduations after traditional events were canceled, and students at an Illinois school walked across a stage in an otherwise empty auditorium. Some systems delayed ceremonies until summer, and former President Barack Obama recorded a video graduation speech for seniors. At some schools, graduating classes were split into smaller groups for live ceremonies.

Some, mostly smaller schools have held traditional commencements for entire classes. But Spain Park and Hoover are two of the largest, top-ranked state schools. Both are in a heavily populated area, making ceremonies all the more risky, critics said.

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As a precaution, students are being given face masks and instructions not to hug friends, exchange high fives or linger afterward. Tickets are limited to four per student, and all present must wear a face covering.

Still, the numbers of potential attendees are daunting at a time when sporting events, concerts, and movies are still prohibited because of crowd concerns.

Some 390 seniors are graduating Wednesday night from Spain Park, meaning about 1,950 graduates and guests could attend. Another 690 will graduate Thursday from Hoover High, so some 3,450 people could be inside Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.

Critics say that even with the rules, huge ceremonies could hasten more coronavirus transmission in metro Birmingham, home to more than 1 million. The city of Hoover, with 85,000 residents, sits astride Shelby and Jefferson counties, which have more than 1,770 virus cases combined.

Bonnie Kaiser, a 2004 Hoover High graduate who teaches in the Department of Anthropology and Global Health Program at the University of California-San Diego, was among 31 health professionals and system alumni who signed an open letter asking officials to reconsider such ceremonies.

“I think the thing is there’s not a way to do it safely even if everyone has perfect behavior as far as what is being recommended, and we know at a graduation that just will not happen," Kaiser said.

But parents pleased their children could have a traditional graduation flooded the school's social media feeds with thanks to school officials even as critics complained.

Meanwhile, some top-ranked students said they won't attend.

Omar Mohammad, a 17-year-old Spain Park senior, organized a protest Saturday outside the graduation site with about three dozen supporters. He is skipping his ceremony as "unsafe and irresponsible.”

“All it takes is one asymptomatic person,” Mohammad said. "This isn’t about graduation ... If you get a disease you can spread it.”

Murphy, the city superintendent, said the ceremonies are optional, noting those students with health problems or safety concerns.

South of Hoover in Alabaster, Thompson High School held a traditional graduation ceremony in its football stadium Tuesday night, limiting the crowd to 2,500 guests, or roughly half the normal capacity, but with no requirements for masks. Senior Jael Janae Johnson thanked God for the event in the opening prayer.

“This wouldn't be possible without your will,” she said.

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