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'Highest Level Of Risk': Union County School Board Approves High School Graduations At Stadiums

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Union County’s school board voted Thursday night to hold traditional high school graduations outdoors at school stadiums. The plans are in defiance of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Phase 2 restrictions on large gatherings.

The board voted 5-4 to go ahead with outdoor graduations. Board members expressed surprise and frustration that school districts weren’t allowed to hold regular, large graduation ceremonies under Phase 2 of Cooper’s order, which runs until at least June 26.

Dr. Amina Ahmed, a pediatrician with Atrium Health, said school graduations pose a high risk during the coronavirus pandemic. She pointed to the difficulty in controlling large crowds and activities like shouting and throwing graduation caps.

She also said the gathering of extended families was another risk.

“Anything involving that many people, with different age groups, you’ve got families in there, different kids touching different things,” Ahmed said. “And different age groups being represented in terms of those people that are at risk, you know, the grandparents that are at risk. I do think it is a situation that is concerning to me, yes.”

Ahmed pointed out the state's restrictions of 25 people gathering outdoors and 10 people indoors is in part a method of controlling group behavior. The larger the group, the harder it is to ensure people aren’t shaking hands and staying six feet apart.

Melinda Forthofer, chair of UNC Charlotte’s Public Health Sciences department, said while graduations may be a special time for students, they pose a high risk for viral spread through respiratory droplets. The CDC has said droplets are the main way the coronavirus spreads between people.

“You know, think if someone is shouting or cheering, then really the six feet of separation that we’ve been looking at is probably not enough,” Forthofer said. “Because there’s more power to spread those droplets, they can spread a farther distance.”

Forthofer said wearing a mask would likely not prevent spreading the virus under those circumstances, and that the type of event that Union County school board officials had approved would fall under "the highest level of risk" according to CDC guidelines. Forthofer wonders how the school board will ensure graduation audiences and students walking across the stage will be far enough apart.

Some school board members expressed discomfort at going against Cooper’s order. They also discussed backup options, like holding ceremonies indoors, in groups of 10 students. Members also floated the idea of holding the ceremonies in South Carolina, which has fewer restrictions on gathering, and where school districts are holding graduations.

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