New state guidelines that are expected to increase gathering limits this spring are prompting some school leaders to rethink graduation plans in hopes of holding more traditional ceremonies for the class of 2021.

Some school leaders are rethinking graduation plans for this spring following the release of new gathering size limits expected to increase the number of people allowed to gather in groups later this month and again in May.

Under the state guidance released Friday, the capacity limits on indoor gatherings will increase to 50 percent starting March 26 and 75 percent starting May 24. For outdoor gatherings, capacity limits will increase to 75 percent starting March 26 and 100 percent starting May 24. Health and safety requirements, including masks and 3-6 feet of distancing, will remain in place.

The capacity targets could change if the Maine CDC determines hospital capacity is at risk or if a new coronavirus variant poses a significant risk to public health. Still, some superintendents said Friday the new guidelines are prompting them to consider more options for graduations.

“It certainly has implications, yes,” said Gorham Superintendent Heather Perry. “When you look at the graduation guidelines that were just issued earlier this week with the existing 50 cap limit and the guidelines released today, effective at the end of March and then again in May, it definitely changes the potential for larger group size gatherings. So there are implications and I expect many of us will go back to the drawing board and discuss what it means for graduations.”

The Maine Department of Education released guidance for graduations earlier this week that calls for a limit of 50 people indoors, but said Friday those guidelines will be updated in light of the announcement on gathering sizes from the governor. The six requirements for health and safety that schools have had to follow all year remain in place, including the requirement for at least 3 feet of distance between students and 6 feet during meals, so the new gathering size limits are expected to have minimal impact on the day-to-day operations of schools and their ability to bring more students into classrooms.

The elimination of the 50-person limit at the end of the month could help schools in some small ways, however, such as by allowing for more than 50 students in a cafeteria provided they can still maintain a distance of 6 feet while unmasked.

Portland Public Schools Communications Coordinator Tess Nacelewicz said in an email Friday that the district has reserved Merrill Auditorium on the June 2-3 graduation dates for its high schools and has contracted with sound engineers from last year in the event they need to have an outdoor or drive-in graduation.

“At this time, we are planning to go forward with our graduation on the scheduled days and will figure out the venue/form as we get closer to the date,” Nacelewicz said.

In Sanford, Superintendent Matt Nelson said school administrators were excited by the possibility of Friday’s announcement opening the door for an outdoor graduation as is typically held at the high school football stadium. Last year Sanford High School held a drive-thru graduation followed by a motorcade through town.

“All things considered, we were very pleased with it,” Nelson said. “I think everyone wished we could do a traditional graduation, but that was not an option last year, unfortunately.”

While no decisions have been made, Nelson is optimistic about the prospects of an in-person outdoor ceremony. Graduation is scheduled for June 9. “We’re still looking into it, but at this time our students have been through so much, especially the seniors,” he said. “So we’re committed to doing everything we can for those students within the guidelines and trying to make it as close to a traditional experience as possible.”

In Buxton-based SAD6, Superintendent Paul Penna said parents and high school administrators are already working on plans for an outdoor graduation, and the new guidelines will help facilitate that.

“It looks like these guidelines will allow it to happen outdoors,” Penna said. “By May, if we’re at 100 percent capacity, whatever the capacity of the football stadium is, it would definitely hold the student population and they should be able to bring guests, thought it would be a spread out event and everyone would still have to be masked.”

In Old Orchard Beach, Superintendent John Suttie hopes the new guidance will allow the high school to have a “somewhat normal” graduation, though social distancing and masks will still be part of the experience. Graduation in Old Orchard Beach is scheduled for June 6.

“I do think there will be some sort of limitations on how many people can attend, but compared to last year when we were doing videos and virtual things, I think most of us will be able to have some semblance of something more traditional,” he said.


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