GFPS changes course on graduation, now pursuing outdoor ceremony to allow two guests per student

Great Falls Public Schools is now pursuing an outdoor graduation ceremony to allow graduates to bring up to two family members to the ceremony.

Superintendent Tom Moore said during a special meeting May 18 that the district received about 315 responses to the survey of graduates and their parents over the weekend and about 74 percent supported the option to have an outdoor ceremony.

Assistant Superintendent Heather Hoyer said the graduations will take place at their previously scheduled times and dates.

GFPS surveying graduates, families about graduation options

Moore said that the district is currently planning on using the grandstands at Montana Expo Park since it’s large enough to accommodate the roughly 500 guests in the stands, as well as parking and space for graduates on the rodeo field and adhere to distancing guidelines in phase one of the pandemic reopening.

GFPS releases graduation plans

Since the graduations won’t take place on school property the plans don’t need board approval, Moore said. but he updated the board on the plan during the special meeting that was called to approve other end of year events at schools.

Moore said that he and other district administrators, as well as the infectious disease specialists from Benefis Health System and Great Falls Clinic, met with a group of graduating seniors on May 15 to discuss the options.

Moore said the health officials approved the larger attendance at an outdoor venue.

Moore said limiting the guests to two per graduate will “still be problematic for a lot of folks.”

Initially, GFPS administrators said the guidance they’d received from health agencies and local officials capped the event at about 250 people and that dictated their initial plan.

Moore said there’s always a concern about the unpredictable weather and the district will keep the Pacific Steel and Recycling Arena in reserve to use in the event of inclement weather, but that will be limited to graduates only.

Hoyer said the district will use the Livestock Pavilion for health screenings for everyone attending and seating charts for contact tracing in the event of any positive COVID-19 cases as a result of the event.

Hoyer said they’ll block out seating areas for the families and will need help from families in order to make that work to track contacts in case of any positive cases.

The district will provide masks to the graduates in school colors as well as disposables for guests, but family members are encouraged to bring their own.

Moore and Hoyer said the Expo Park option provides better options for parking and additional venues for inclement weather, which is not all available at Memorial Stadium.

The district has a multi-year contract with Cascade County for use of the Expo Park facilities for graduation ceremonies and the cost had already been budgeted this year.

Moore said the district is still working with local partners to livestream the graduation cermeonies.

Moore and school board members thanked the group of students that came to last week’s meeting asking the district to consider a different option so their families could attend graduation ceremonies.

Many said it served as a reminder that participating in the civic process can change results.

Several said the senior year for the Class of 2020 wasn’t, in many ways, what students had hoped for, but that they helped make the best of their final celebration.