El Paso County seniors can graduate with ceremony

El Paso County seniors can graduate with a ceremony, after the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment approved a graduation variance request. The announcement means districts and high schools that serve Southeast Colorado Springs are gearing up to celebrate the class of 2020 in both virtual and real venues.  

El Paso County Public Health, local hospitals, and the Board of County Commissioners submitted the graduation variance request on May 7, asking for certain waivers from Executive Order D 20-044 Safer at Home and Public Health Order 20-28 Safer at Home. The state approved the request late Thursday, with minor amendments, including:

  • students are encouraged to avoid vulnerable persons for two weeks following their participation in a graduation ceremony; and
  • communication to students should include a recommendation that they not participate if a family member is considered vulnerable. 

That's big news for seniors at Harrison School District 2 and Colorado Springs School District 11. D11 will kick off the local festivities in June, while D2 has a ceremony scheduled for late July. The tentative schedule is as follows: 

  • Palmer High School: 8 a.m. June 23 at Garry Berry Stadium, 2020 Glenn Summer Road. 
  • Mitchell High School: 8 a.m. June 24 at Garry Berry Stadium, 2020 Glenn Summer Road. 
  • Harrison School District 2: July 25 at UCHealth Park, 4385 Tutt Blvd.

Mitchell and Palmer will also host virtual graduation events at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., respectively, on Wednesday, May 20. Sierra High School and the Career Readiness Academy will host drive-through graduations on Thursday, May 21; and Harrison High School has scheduled a drive-through graduation for Friday, May 22, and all three D-2 drive-through ceremonies will be streamed via Facebook Live. 

“We are grateful for the efforts of our local school partners, hospitals, County Commissioners, and others to help create a well thought out plan,” said Susan Wheelan, El Paso County Public Health director. “We are thrilled our seniors will have the opportunity to celebrate this remarkable milestone in their lives.”

The variance approval is granted based on the facts and circumstances as Public Health has described them in the request. But if circumstances change — for example, if surges in COVID-19 transmission occur, cases exceed the capacity for El Paso County to fully implement all effective disease control strategies as described in the request, or if resources or COVID-19 prevalence statewide in CDPHE’s opinion requires a different approach — CDPHE reserves the right to modify or rescind the approval.

Public Health said it will continue to monitor and assess local data, testing capacity, and health care system capacity in the days and weeks leading up to graduation ceremony dates. Public Health may require any school to implement its virtual-only alternative with at least one week’s written notice, if it determines that community conditions no longer support holding an in-person ceremony.

“The Pikes Peak Area Superintendents appreciate the work and partnership with El Paso County Public Health in creating guidelines for graduation ceremonies that will allow us to honor the Class of 2020 in a safe, consistent manner,” Walt Cooper, Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 superintendent, said in a release. “School district leadership maintained frequent communication with Public Health, and they took our concerns to heart. So many people worked so hard to make this happen.”

The variance request is the culmination of the work done by County Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly, Public Health Director Susan Wheelan, County Attorney Diana May, Susan Payne, local area school superintendents, hospital officials and many other community partners.

Southeast Express Editor Regan Foster contributed to this report.