Prince William County is asking Gov. Ralph Northam to waive six-foot distancing requirements for outdoor graduation ceremonies next month, requesting that his office either impose no distancing restrictions or limit the gatherings to three-foot distancing at most.
In a letter to Northam’s office on behalf of the school board, Chair Babur Lateef says that the six-foot restriction would limit the number of tickets available for many graduations to just two per student, despite the fact that experts agree outdoor transmission of COVID-19 is very difficult.
The ceremonies are also scheduled to take place one to two weeks before Northam himself said all state restrictions could be lifted if Virginia’s case numbers continue to decline. The six-foot distancing requirement is outlined in an executive order from Northam that went into place May 15.
“We understand the challenges you face as you work to keep all Virginians safe during the pandemic. … In light of recent CDC guidance and scientific data regarding the safety of outdoor events and rising vaccination rates in our community, our request for a waiver falls well within acceptable safety guidelines,” the letter reads.
The Prince William school division is currently planning 15 high school graduations, most of which are scheduled between June 3 and June 8 (PACE West School will hold its ceremony May 24 at its building). Eleven of the ceremonies will be held at Jiffy Lube Live, an amphitheater with 10,444 reserved seats, with the biggest graduating classes being over 750 students.
“[The order’s] six feet rule has the practical effect of reducing our capacity to approximately 3,000. With 750 graduates, that leaves at best 2,250 tickets to distribute among graduates and staff,” Lateef wrote. “The real-world logistics of six feet guidance limits each family’s participation to approximately two tickets. Invariably, grandparents, siblings, friends -- or even parents -- will be kept from celebrating this rite of passage. At the very least, a three feet standard would allow for the possibility of 4-5 tickets per family.”
According to Lateef, Jiffy Lube Live is telling the division that they want all the ceremonies to have assigned seating because social distancing would be hard to control on the lawn, and that the venue doesn’t want to run afoul of the order by allowing closer seating.
Lateef told InsideNoVa that the division can make adjustments at any point if Northam agrees to waive the order, but that they’d like to hear back as soon as possible to allow for families to plan. He said a number of surrounding divisions are asking for a similar waiver from Northam and Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni.
“The ridiculous thing is you have to be six feet apart outside, inside the building in schools we have them at three feet apart,” Lateef told InsideNoVa. “I’ve talked to the governor about it, he’s working on it. But I don’t know if the health department is going to stand in the way of it.”