Schools Scramble To Prepare For Graduation And Upcoming Budget, Board Votes

School board elections will be held by mail-in ballot this year.

In the age of COVID-19, drive-in movie theaters are said to be making a comeback. East Hampton High School plans to take it a step farther by holding a drive-in graduation ceremony in the school’s vast parking lot.

“If everything is approved, students and parents will arrive in cars and proceed to a stage and get their diplomas,” said East Hampton High School Principal Adam Fine. “Speeches will all be live, and we will have sound throughout our lot.”

“It would be like a ferry line scenario,” added Superintendent Richard Burns. “We’d have cars lined up in the parking lot, and they would all be facing the stage. We’re hoping to get some big screens so people in cars can see.”

East Hampton and other school districts are scrambling to finalize plans for graduations, find a way to equitably grade the work of students who have been studying from home since mid-March, and figure out how to hold mail-in-ballot-only budget and school board votes after Governor Andrew Cuomo last week ordered schools to remain closed through the academic year.

Jeff Nichols, the acting superintendent of the Sag Harbor School District, said he planned to hold an online meeting with parents of seniors this Thursday to discuss options.

“I haven’t ruled out the idea of handing out diplomas on the hill,” he said, “but I have real concerns about social distancing. I’d be worried about crowds showing up. Whatever we end up doing could be dictated by things we can’t control.”

In Bridgehampton, Superintendent Robert Hauser said the district would move forward with a virtual graduation after being advised by its attorney that the governor’s order closing schools through the end of the academic year applied to all activities on school property. “The governor could amend that order to provide some flexibility,” he said, “but you also run the risk that the order is extended.”

Other local districts are trying to keep their options open. In Hampton Bays, Superintendent Lars Clemensen said under a best-case scenario graduation would take place as always under a tent on the school grounds. The worst-case scenario would involve having individual families come to the school for private ceremonies. Mr. Clemensen said he held a meeting with senior class leaders to make sure students knew, short of a miracle, their graduation would not be like those of their older brothers and sisters.

“But we are focused on trying to make it as special and unique a day as possible,” he said.
“We have been collaborating with parents, students and community members for the best way to honor the class of 2020,” said Southampton High School Principal Dr. Brian Zahn. “One thing we know is we can’t hold a traditional ceremony as we have in the past. There will be virtual elements, and there have to be live elements as well.”

He said he has been talking to Mayor Jesse Warren about ways there could be some kind of public recognition of graduates, perhaps with signs in shop windows or in village parks. “I can assure the public and our community it is not just going to be a ceremony, but a day of celebration,” he said.

Westhampton Beach Superintendent Mike Radday said his district is also holding off on a final decision as long as possible. “The worst-case scenario would be in the event that no public gatherings are allowed — even in late summer,” he said. “In that case, we will consider other options, such as a virtual graduation.”

Making The Grade

With Regents exams canceled and students and teachers thrust into a new world of remote learning, districts are also struggling with how they will grade students.

In Sag Harbor, Mr. Nichols said grades will not be given for the third and fourth quarters, although teachers will indicate whether a students submitted assignments completely, incompletely, or not at all. Grades from the first two quarters will be used on transcripts.

“The requirements placed upon students due to COVID-19 made things inequitable,” he said. Although all students have laptops, it was impossible to determine whether children had regular access to WiFi, he said. In other instances, students were required to babysit younger siblings while their parents went to work or even help out with the family business.

“It’s just very difficult for me to issue grades under these circumstances,” he said.
In East Hampton Mr. Burns said high school students will be given the option of receiving a numeric or pass-fail grade, while the middle school will go to a pass-fail system, and the elementary school will employ a system indicating how well a student met expectations.

Mr. Hauser said a decision on what shape high school grading will take will follow the release of progress reports at the end of this week. “We’re hearing of many positive experiences,” he said, “but we also have some instances of a kid turning off the video.”

He said the district, like East Hampton, would have “some type of notation for next year’s teacher” for elementary school students to indicate how well they fared this spring.

Hampton Bays has yet to decide what form grades will take, but Mr. Clemensen said the overriding goal is “to do no harm to kids” and recognize they are all in different situations.

Southampton is using a pass-fail system for the third and fourth quarters. “The reality is right now in this remote environment, there is a great deal of stratification of need,” said Dr. Zahn. “In some cases you have families with great WiFi and multiple devices. On the flip side, some don’t have WiFi, or kids have to compete to use devices.”

At Westhampton Beach, the district is using a four-level scale, based on participation and effort, at the elementary level, and numeric grades for secondary students.

“Teachers are considering the difficulties that students and families are facing during this emergency remote learning scenario as they grade assignments,” Mr. Radday said. “We certainly do not want to penalize students or create additional stress.”

A New Way To Vote

Outside the classroom, districts are also working overtime to figure out how to meet the governor’s requirement that budget votes and elections be conducted by mail-in ballots with all ballots required to be returned by June 9.

For starters, prospective school board candidates will not be required to submit petitions with the names of 25 registered voters in the district. Instead, they will simply have to inform their respective district in writing by 5 p.m. on Monday, May 11.

Once a list of candidates is in hand, district clerks will be required to get absentee ballots and postage-paid envelopes printed and distributed to voters.

“This is quite an overwhelming situation, to say the least,” Mr. Burns said of the situation confronting East Hampton. In a typical year, the district might be required to send out 200 absentee ballots, but this year it is looking at a requirement to send out as many as 9,000, he said.

Mr. Clemensen said the governor’s order didn’t leave districts much time. There are going to be over 700 school districts that need envelopes and ballots printed,” he said. “There’s going to be a run on print shops.”

Southampton District Clerk Amy Pierson said she would use the Suffolk County Board of Elections voter rolls to compile a mailing list and estimated she may have to send out more than 8,000 ballot packets. She agreed with Mr. Clemensen that there would likely be a backup at printing plants.

“We’re hoping to get them in the mail by May 29,” she said, “and we have to have them back in our possession by 5 p.m. on the ninth.”