Yakima Health District has not approved any local plans for drive-in or in-person high school commencement ceremonies, and the county is not expected to enter Phase 2 of reopening plans in time for the early-June celebrations.
This includes previous plans outlined by West Valley School District, which had received approval contingent on the county’s reopening progress, said Ryan Ibach, chief operating officer for the health district.
Ibach said the state Department of Health guidelines only allow for in-person and drive-in graduation ceremonies in Phase 2 of reopening. Even in that case, strict social distancing and sanitation requirements are to be followed.
The Yakima Health District began providing commencement guidance to local districts about two weeks ago, when the possibility of progression was still on the table, he said. On May 6, Ibach said drive-in plans outlined by West Valley for June 5 were tentatively approved.
The health district said Saturday that Yakima County will remain in Phase 1 because it isn’t close to meeting reopening criteria. Among other factors, the case rate needs to be 25 or lower per 100,000 population in a two-week span. As of Monday, Yakima County’s rate was 517 per 100,000.
Tuesday morning, West Valley requested a variance from the health district to allow the district to continue its commencement plans. The request was denied Tuesday afternoon.
“Our health officer said no, we can’t give out a variance from neighborhood to neighborhood or city to city. It’s for the whole county,” Ibach said, adding that district officials were told by 2 p.m. Tuesday. “We can’t issue a variance.”
Later that afternoon, district communications director Anjerie Nemrow had told Yakima Herald-Republic that the district had received approval to continue with drive-in graduation plans.
Ibach said this was not the case.
West Valley High School Principal Ben McMurray said Wednesday afternoon the school was working to send out information for graduates and their families.
The DOH guidelines for graduation celebrations say that under any phase of re-opening, given the pandemic, “the safest option right now is for everyone to stay home.”
“Given the importance of the graduation milestone, having an event outside the home may encourage people in high-risk groups (particularly older adults and people with underlying health conditions) or ill individuals to attend rather than stay at home,” DOH adds.
It says that how to host a safe ceremony is up to districts, “as long as they do not contravene the Governor’s prohibitions on holding gatherings” in each of the phases.
Yakima County remains in Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan because of a high COVID-19 infection rate, transmission rate and hospitalizations. Under Phase 1, people should not be gathering or taking part in social activities with people from outside their households.
Ibach said after the health district sent out state guidelines on commencement plans, Yakima Health District told districts to contact them if they desired help in planning. He said the health district had received calls from and worked with all districts in the county except Toppenish and Wapato.
On Wednesday, Kevin Chase, superintendent of Educational Service District 105, an agency that provides support for regional school districts, sent out an email to all area superintendents and principals to reiterate drive-in or in-person ceremonies are not allowed in Yakima County, Ibach said.
Ibach said districts with commencement plans next weekend should call off any Phase 2-level plans.
“Even if we were to apply today (to enter Phase 2), it’s taking about a week to get approval from the state,” he said. “Even if we applied today, it would be a long shot. So I’d say no, it’s not going to happen.”
Sunnyside, Toppenish, Mabton and Selah school districts also have commencement celebrations planned this weekend. All four districts previously had plans for drive-up ceremonies. Sunnyside and Selah called theirs off, while Toppenish and Mabton did not provide updated graduation plans for Phase 1.
Parents in Selah have begun to spread word about an unofficial commencement celebration for graduates. Ibach said this was not linked to or endorsed by the Selah School District, and the Yakima Health District did not approve of these or similar plans.