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Scenes from West Valley High’s graduation ceremony on Friday, June 7, 2019, at the Yakima SunDome in Yakima, Wash.

West Valley High School has called off its in-person commencement ceremony planned for Friday, moving to a virtual ceremony due to insurance coverage.

District communications director Anjerie Nemrow said the district’s drive-in ceremony, which would have included graduates walking across an outdoor stage, was a liability issue given coronavirus guidelines. The district’s insurance provider wouldn’t cover the event, she said, and after internal administrative conversations Thursday, the in-person ceremony was called off.

West Valley will still have a virtual ceremony Friday evening, which was part of its original plan. Information was sent out to graduates and their families Thursday evening, said Nemrow.

The decision came after the Yakima Health District said Wednesday it had not OK’d the district’s commencement plans because of state Department of Health guidelines.

The problem is Yakima County is still in Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan because of high coronavirus case numbers and hospitalizations. As of Monday, Yakima County’s rate of coronavirus cases was 517 per 100,000 over the past two weeks, well above the 25 per 100,000 needed to reopen. The county has the highest rate of cases per capita in the state.

The health district said Saturday that Yakima County will remain in Phase 1 until case numbers improve. The state Department of Health only recommends in-person, drive-in and drive-through graduation activities in Stage 2 and above.

Under Phase 1, people should not be gathering or taking part in social activities with people from outside their households, according to the state. Yakima is not expected to reach Phase 2 in time for early June commencement ceremonies, local health officials have said.

Planning process

Yakima Health District Chief Operating Officer Ryan Ibach said local health officials started working with school districts before the state’s commencement guidelines came out on May 14. Drive-in ceremonies were deemed to be low-risk by the health district, he said. And at the time, Yakima County expected to enter Phase 2 at the beginning of June.

When the state said drive-in ceremonies fell under Phase 2 guidelines, Ibach said it was “almost heartbreaking.” But he said the health district, local superintendents and principals have to follow the rules. He said the health district did not endorse districts executing Phase 2-level ceremonies.

In addition to the West Valley School District, the Sunnyside, Toppenish, Selah and Mabton school districts had also planned to have drive-in commencement ceremonies this weekend. Sunnyside and Selah school districts called off the plans when it became clear the county would not progress in re-opening. Sunnyside plans to have a ceremony in which students walk across stage once the county enters Phase 2. Toppenish did not have updated Phase 1 plans Thursday, while Mabton could not immediately be reached.

Ibach said that the Yakima Health District has never told districts that they cannot do any particular plan.

“We’ve had two-way conversations of, ‘Here’s what we can do and here’s what we can’t do based on what’s in the guidelines,’” he said. “We’re not shutting them down. We’re working with superintendents as far as what falls under the guidelines.”

Making the call

Kevin Chase, superintendent of Educational Service District 105, an agency that provides support for regional school districts, said he understood that districts were trying to make the best decisions they could and that they were under pressure from parents and seniors. Still, he said, he hoped districts would abide by clear guidelines from public health officials stating drive-in or in-person commencement ceremonies should not be held in counties that remained in Phase 1 of re-opening.

“It’s like you’re being told by the principal, ‘Don’t run in the hall, it’s dangerous for you.’ No one likes to be told what to do by someone in authority. But in this case, we are not going to just be able to ignore it and it’ll go away and we’ll reopen and everything will be fine,” Chase said of COVID-19.

“It’s not going to happen. We have to put in the hard work to get the infection rates down… We’ve got to buckle down. There’s no shortcuts to Phase 2.”

Chase said he felt for graduates in the county who would not have the commencement they had imagined.

“If for a minute we thought we could do something that was safe that could keep you and your family and the community safe, we would be doing it,” he said to 2020 graduates. “But unfortunately there’s just not that choice. So I feel sad for them. I feel bad. But we’re trying to make lemonade from lemons, and we’re doing our best.”

Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka