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Graduation Frustrations: Guidance for School Boards on the Rite of Spring

Board Governance Coronavirus

Spring break abroad, prom, senior night, senior breakfast, baccalaureate, awards night, and walking across the stage at graduation in front of faculty, family, and friends. The list of events that Illinois high school seniors will miss with school buildings closed for the remainder of the school year is staggering. School boards across the state should act now to ensure that graduating students receive their long-sought diplomas and are honored in a safe and legally appropriate way. Changes to school policies to comply with flexibilities for graduation requirements will ensure that eligible students are not denied their diplomas at the end of the school year. Similarly, school boards and administrators should work together to find solutions for honoring graduates. Although ISBE recently foreclosed in-person graduation ceremonies of any type, recent comments on social media suggest that additional flexibilities may be on the horizon.

Amendments to Board Policies Required

Governor J.B. Pritzker issued Executive Order 2020-31 on April 24, 2020, relaxing a wide number of requirements impacting schools. Among other flexibilities, the order suspended a number of requirements applicable to high school seniors and eighth grade students. We described those flexibilities at length in a previous alert. Notably, many school board policies incorporate many of the graduation requirements relaxed in the order. School boards should act now to amend board policies to avoid confusion or other potential issues related to completing requirements under policy that are not currently required in light of the executive order.

In-Person Graduation Plans Must be Reevaluated

In its Weekly Message for April 29, 2020, ISBE recognized “how devastating it feels to miss . . . sacred rites of spring” such as graduation, yet stated that “in-person graduation ceremonies of any kind are not allowed at this time.” This includes drive-through graduation ceremonies and events where students come in small groups to school or another location for a photo or to walk across a stage, even if safe social distancing is maintained. According to ISBE, “[t]he Governor’s extended stay-at-home order prohibits group gatherings.” Feedback challenging ISBE’s statement was swift and recent social media comments from ISBE suggest it may be reconsidering its position.

School boards should remain in regular contact with legal counsel when considering how to handle graduation in light of ISBE’s proclamation and any changes that may come.

For assistance with revising board policies and considering what graduation options remain available to schools despite the Governor’s stay-at-home order, contact the authors of this post or any other Franczek attorney.

Update: On May 1, 2020, ISBE updated its Mandatory Suspension of In-Person Instruction Guidance for Illinois Schools and School Districts to reiterate the information shared in its tweet earlier that day that it was working to consider recommendations with IDPH regarding graduations. On May 2, 2020, ISBE issued joint guidance with IDPH allowing specific types of in-person graduation celebrations if social distancing and other requirements in the guidance are met.