Fairfield school officials still debating how to celebrate high school graduation

FAIRFIELD — Just three weeks away from high school graduation, public school officials are still deliberating what a graduation ceremony might look like in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

In a Board of Education meeting earlier this week, Paul Cavanna, the headmaster of Warde High School, said he and Ludlowe High School Headmaster Greg Hatzis have been meeting regularly with their respective graduation committees and reaching out to parents, teachers and students to get their feedback through surveys and town hall meetings.

The two have spoken with the school system administration, town officials and health and police departments to give students the graduation they deserve, provided it’s safe.

“We really grounded this work in the guidelines that the state of Connecticut put out, in moving forward with a graduation in May or June” Cavanna said, later adding that schools may have different types of ceremonies.

Hatzis described the process of figuring out options as trying to find the overlap in a Venn diagram with three circles — one for state guidelines, one for what students want and one for Fairfield’s traditions.

“You put those three circles together... there’s kind of a really tiny area of intersection,” Hatzis said. “That’s what we’re shooting for.”

In an earlier Board of Education meeting, the two headmasters said they were planning a graduation parade where the students would ride and drive through town before picking up their diplomas at their respective schools.

Superintendent of Schools Mike Cummings has since said the district is reconsidering those plans.

Cummings said municipal education administrators and state officials, during video and other long distance discussions, spoke with a physician who had concerns about coronavirus transmission that could take place during such an emotional moment.

“If we have some type of a driving graduation, when students get out of the cars, their friends will get out of their cars and give them a hug,” Cummings said. “Parents will get out and shake hands... the doctor said to us, ‘What you don’t want to have happen, is you don’t want have an (outbreak hotspot) event.”

Cummings said the district has a responsibility to maintain the health of Fairfield’s citizens. He said that drives a lot of concern as they plan graduation ceremonies.

Board member Jennifer Maxon-Kennelly said she did not think the school system should be attempting to micromanage ceremonies, adding that the reported discussions sounded more like the concern was litigation, not safety. She said it would be selling the constituency short to think that they would not be able to follow the rules.

“It’s a level of management that I don’t think the situation calls for,” she said. “I think our parents are better than that. I think our kids are better than that.”

Maxon-Kennelly said she was not casting blame on Hatzis or Cavanna, but asked why the district could not make its own judgment call. She said it might be an easy decision for a medical official in Hartford who is not “in the trenches” with the students and their families.

Cummings said it was not just state officials, but the Fairfield Health Department that had the concerns. As superintendent, he said, he is not in a position to say they are wrong.

“To my mind, there is a liability issue,” Cummings said. “We’ve spent the last 10 weeks in distance learning. We’ve learned a lot. We’ve done a pretty good job.”

“I want to go back to physical school. I think I speak for the entire school system, the parent community, that we need to be back together, because we are suffering apart,” he said. “And if I did anything as superintendent to set us back (from) that course... honestly you would have my resignation. I would have failed in my role as superintendent to protect this district.”

Maxon-Kennelly said she just wanted to ask questions and make decisions based on the data of what is the reality “on the ground.”

Chairwoman Christine Vitale said the medical advice as of Tuesday is that the coronavirus was still active in Fairfield. She said she suspects that there will be an uptick in cases as people stop social distancing.

“We all want to give these students the graduation that they want,” she said. “We all think they deserve the traditional graduation. None of us signed up for this. We have worked very hard these last three months to do right by our children and our families in this moment, but also in the future. To downplay the potential risk, I think is irresponsible.”

Vitale said the intentions of the medical professionals advising the school system is to keep people safe and healthy so the community can put this chapter behind it.

Cummings said he hoped to have a more finalized plan in the following days.