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Rule-Breaking, House Parties Spread Post-Graduation COVID-19 Outbreaks

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Every spring, with the congratulations and recollections for the senior class, principals often add one more piece of advice in advance of graduation: Remember to celebrate responsibly.

While traditionally a caution against drinking and driving, in a pandemic, that advice has taken on a whole new meaning.

In at least a half-dozen states, health officials have traced coronavirus clusters to high school and college graduations. In several of those outbreaks, school and district leaders found that their creative efforts to provide a virus-safe ceremony may have been thwarted by students and guests abandoning social distancing rules soon afterwards.

Christine Ackerman, the superintendent of the Chappaqua school district in New York, said in a statement that her district planned with the local health department and "repeatedly provided clear guidance and protocols for families" on how to stay safe and socially distant during the graduation ceremony for Horace Greeley High School, held at Chappaqua train station in New York. "Unfortunately, at the event, and despite police presence, numerous individuals failed to follow our protocols."

On the weekend of June 20, a student returned from a visit to Florida to attend the commencement, followed by days of private parties and a large, multi-community graduation celebration called "Field Night" that included juniors and seniors from Horace Greeley and surrounding schools. That student became the first of a still-expanding cluster of at least 19 coronavirus cases in Westchester County, N.Y., prompting investigations from the state board of health and concern from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Westchester is far from alone. In the last week, fully half of the new coronavirus cases in Lane County, Ore., have come from a 20-person cluster following a college graduation and another 11-person cluster following high school graduations.

"High school graduation is a uniquely special time in young people's lives. ... Unfortunately for our graduating seniors and their families, this year is different," Ackerman said. "A global pandemic is disrupting our lives in ways we could never have imagined, and we all must work together to contain it."

Off-Campus Parties a Problem

Thousands of high schools nationwide have been planning creative and often elaborate means to safely honor their seniors, from hologram diploma hand-offs to ski-lift commencements, but the most carefully thought through graduation won't prevent the spread of the virus if students and families don't follow schools' safety rules at the ceremony or go stop socially distancing afterward.

In both the New York outbreak and another following post-graduation house parties in New Orleans, witnesses told health officials that students packed inside private homes without masks. The Crescent City's Health Director, Jennifer Avegno, said in a news conference that these private parties are becoming "super-spreader events" in a city struggling to contain new outbreaks.

In Atlanta, the independent Lovett School honored seniors with a car parade in mid-May, but several students tested positive for COVID-19 in the days that followed. Courtney Fowler, a spokeswoman for the school, said Lovett later learned about several social gatherings after the parade, but did not know whether guests at the off-campus events followed any health recommendations.

"We strongly encouraged families of the graduates diagnosed with COVID-19 to work with the Fulton County Department of Health and their own health-care professionals," she said.

Lovett postponed its planned in-person graduation to July 30, and Fowler said the school is "monitoring local virus conditions" to make sure they will be able to hold a live event.

Careful planning and clear messaging during the ceremony itself can help send a strong message about playing it safe during the pandemic, as schools continue to look for ways to provide memorable commencements.  

New York health department spokesman Evan Frost said schools should make sure that no one who has had symptoms, a positive test, or who has potentially been exposed to someone with coronavirus participate in or attend any graduation events. Health officials also noted that leaders should be cautious of anyone who will be involved with a school celebration, not just those directly interacting with students. In Minnesota, for example, staff members at a graduation were exposed to the coronavirus by a presymptomatic person who was helping to set up the stage before the ceremony.  

A handful of other schools have also had to warn new graduates to self-quarantine for individual positive coronavirus cases, even those that did not lead to outbreaks. Only days after a successful socially distanced "racetrack" graduation at the Homestead/Miami Speedway, Christopher Columbus High School Principal Pugh spiked a mild fever that turned out to be COVID-19.

Pugh immediately went into isolation and relayed the news of his illness to the graduates of the all-boys school, where he had been one of the staff members passing diplomas to seniors as they drove past. Earlier this week, he sent a video to his students to let them know he was on the mend and urge them to protect themselves as they begin to go out:

Photo: Principal Vance Fishback holds a diploma to presnt to graduates of the class of 2020 from Cabarrus Early College of Technology at the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a graduation event in Concord, N.C., Friday, June 12, 2020. Due to the coronavirus pandemic Cabarrus County schools participated in a first-of-its-kind commencement ceremony for students and family. Source: Gerry Broome/AP

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