In an effort to restore some of the lost traditions of the high school experience as health restrictions loosen, the Palo Alto Unified School District is bringing back in-person graduation ceremonies for seniors at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools.
Superintendent Don Austin told this news organization "there's no doubt" that graduating students will walk across their school fields to accept their diplomas this year.
"Probably a couple of weeks ago, it started to look real doable," he said.
The details are currently being worked out between district leaders and school principals as well as the Santa Clara County Public Health Department and will be released as early as this Friday, Austin said.
Administrators from Gunn and Palo Alto high schools are currently eyeing their respective football fields for the ceremonies, which will be a slight change for Palo Alto High School as graduation was typically held on a different campus field prior to the pandemic.
Although every graduating senior will have the opportunity to attend the ceremonies, Austin emphasized that the number of allowable attendees remains unclear since attendance will be based on what's allowed under the state's colored tier system. The audience could range anywhere from a third to more than half capacity at each location depending on whether Santa Clara County moves out of the orange tier and into the least restrictive yellow tier.
The football fields will be used as main seating areas, and benches could hold any overflow for the families of the approximately 500 graduating seniors at each high school.
Austin said the district's ability to seat family members of each graduate within their own "pod," while keeping every family or group of attendees 6 feet apart per county health guidelines was a big game changer that prompted the district to move forward with in-person ceremonies.
Utilizing both the field and benches for the audience will allow the family of each graduate to be properly distanced from each other, he said.
As schools across the county expand attendance for in-person learning, Palo Alto Unified School District's decision to bring back the traditional ceremony marks yet another milestone in the push to return to normal for students.
For last year's rite of passage, both district high schools, along with Palo Alto's private Castilleja and Kehillah Jewish High schools, opted for a car parade, during which seniors waved from their cars to cheering friends, teachers and families. At the time, the county rolled back restrictions just enough to allow for the drive-thru celebrations.
"Palo Alto was a leader in lobbying the county to allow the graduation parade," Austin said.
While in-person graduation ceremonies appear to be happening, not all traditional events are set to make a comeback at the district this year. Prom, for example, remains in discussion, Austin said.
Austin said graduation remains a top priority, but prom could be a topic of discussion in upcoming meetings.
"To be able to tell our graduates that they're going to get to graduate in a stadium in a way that resembles a traditional graduation is exciting for us," he said. "It's been a year and a half of loss and disappointment, and we're excited to be able to preserve some piece of normalcy for the conclusion of their senior year."