Baldwin parents, students push for in-person graduation

Originally published in Baldwin Herald on June 11, 2020.

While some Baldwin High School parents of seniors said they appreciate the planned events to replace a traditional ceremony, they are pushing the district to host an in-person graduation ceremony when it is safe to do so.

“These kids deserve to wear their robes and walk in to ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ with their friends,” said Karen Marchese, whose son, Ronnie Marchese-Silano, is set to graduate this month. “They lost so much. Let’s at least give them that.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced last Sunday that outdoor high school graduations of up to 150 people would be allowed starting June 26, provided social-distancing guidelines are observed. The announcement followed his directive a day earlier allowing houses of worship to begin holding regular services, which would be limited to 25 percent capacity.

Prior to Cuomo’s announcement, Hempstead Town Supervisor Don Clavin last week sent a letter to Cuomo urging him to allow New York schools, colleges and universities to host in-person graduation ceremonies for the class of 2020 if the academic institutions are able to guarantee the well-being of attendees. Clavin cited widespread public outcry by graduating seniors and parents that students were not able to adequately celebrate their academic accomplishments with traditional ceremonies.

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach whose district includes parts of Baldwin, also urged Cuomo in a letter to allow the ceremonies to take place, with proper cautions.

“This is an encouraging step but it is still important to reach the ultimate goal of having the entire class of 2020 graduating together,” Kaminsky said in a statement. “Our students deserve recognition for their tremendous successes, and we cannot stop pushing until they celebrate this milestone together, in a safe and healthy way.”

Two petitions have been circulating in Baldwin urging the district to host an in-person graduation when safe. One garnered about 120 student signatures, a student said, and another, nearly 1,000 signatures from parents and neighbors.

“I specifically remember the excitement,” said Marchese, referring to her own Baldwin High School graduation years ago. “I remember the excitement of walking out there. It was wonderful.”

She said she and other parents and students wouldn’t mind if a ceremony was held next spring. And while she implored the district to host a traditional ceremony, Marchese also thanked district officials for planning events like Seniors Illuminated, where parents and students drove through the high school campus with their headlights turned off to see video clips of the class of 2020 projected onto the building’s walls set to music on the radio.

“Thank you for giving us something to enjoy and be happy with. I appreciate it,” Marchese said. “We all appreciate it. But just tell us that you will eventually give us a real graduation. We need that. The parents need it, the students need it, we need it.”

Maritza Lopez, another parent of a graduating senior, also said she was grateful for the district’s efforts. 

“We understand that their hands are tied and they’re doing the best they can under the most extreme circumstances, and we appreciate that,” she said. “But maybe, even if it’s up to a year from now, think about it. Don’t forget about our children. They worked so hard up to this point and some of them are very devastated. This was a culmination of 13 years of hard work since kindergarten. It’s just deflating for them.”

Lopez also recognized the challenges facing the district, noting that budget cuts may come into play, as well as the inevitable loss of state aid amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Parents and relatives also noted that neighboring districts, including Freeport and Oceanside, either set a tentative date for an in-person graduation or hosted an in-person graduation over the course of a few days.

“Baldwin has hesitated to secure this hallmark, coming-of-age moment for our students, and while the senior events they have put together have been lovely, nothing will replace the in-person graduation ceremony that these students deserve,” said Joseph Marchese-Schmitt, who graduated from BHS in 2012.

Sheryl Smalley, another district parent, urged the district to at least offer a tentative date where students would be allowed to walk across a stage.

Parents added that the seniors’ class trip and prom were also canceled, although some parents are trying to organize an outdoor event to replace prom. 

In a letter sent to Baldwin families dated May 29, Schools Superintendent Dr. Shari Camhi said she knows that some people are not entirely satisfied with the district’s planned graduation events.

“The inability to do an in-person graduation was not a decision made by the district,” she wrote. “This was a result of the executive order by Governor Cuomo. Believe me, we are not happy about the whole situation.”

Camhi noted that education falls within the fourth phase of New York’s reopening plans, and that some districts identified possible dates if Cuomo allowed in-person graduation ceremonies. She added that Baldwin had not closed the door to the possibility.

“There will, no doubt, be restrictions on whatever is ultimately authorized,” she wrote. “Here are some of the factors that must be considered. Baldwin has over 400 students graduating this year. It is one of the larger classes in the county. The summer months are extremely hot, and the temperature in the auditorium and on the field are even hotter. Graduation needs to be supervised. Teachers do not work in the summer, and administrators take their vacations during summer months. Many students are not around during the summer and will be leaving for college in August.”

Clavin added that while he commends Cuomo for permitting in-person outdoor ceremonies,  "the 180 person attendance limit imposed by the governor for academic graduation ceremonies is not sufficient."

"I ask the Governor, again, to reevaluate his position, and allow schools that have adequate outdoor facilities the opportunity to host graduation ceremonies with more than 180 guests in attendance if they determine they can hold such ceremonies in a safe, socially distant manner in accordance with public health guidance," Clavin said.