MONROE – Union County Public Schools has decided to defy Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order on mass gatherings to hold traditional high school graduations at football stadiums while deploying safety measures such as social distancing.
School board members voted 5-4 during an emergency meeting held May 28 on Zoom in favor of traditional graduations.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, UCPS had scheduled graduations for traditional high schools June 11 and 12 at Wingate University, Winthrop University and Cabarrus Arena & Events Center. Superintendent Andrew Houlihan told the school board those dates may no longer be feasible given the logistics involved in the district hosting these events.
For example, Central Academy of Technology & Arts, Monroe High, Sun Valley High and the Union County Early College don’t have stadiums available and are going to have to hold their graduations at another campus.
UCPS also has to determine how many people will be allowed to watch the ceremony in-person when social distancing measures are applied to the seating. The district will also need to find a streaming platform.
But the most crucial element is to avoid breaking the law.
Cooper’s executive order prohibits mass gatherings of more than 10 people inside and 25 people outside. Breaking the order is considered a Class 2 misdemeanor. However, ensuring the order is followed falls to state and local law enforcement.
School board member Joseph Morreale said the last thing he’d want to see is the district go through all this planning only for the authorities to break up graduation on the day of the ceremony.
Morreale was among the four school board members to vote against traditional graduations. The others were Kathy Heintel, Christina Helms and Candice Sturdivant.
“I’d love to have our students graduate at their home school – I would love nothing more – however, I’m not OK with violating the law whether I like it or not,” Helms said. “I don’t like it.”
Helms told district staff she would like to hear a firm answer on June 2, the date of the next school board meeting, if UCPS could hold graduations in South Carolina, as well as potential dates for every school graduation.
Staff intends on reaching out to nearby South Carolina school districts to see if they would allow UCPS to use their facilities for graduation. At this point, South Carolina graduations would be a plan B.
Gary Sides, who made the motion to hold traditional graduations, said it may take school districts like UCPS to show initiative and force the governor to provide some leadership on the issue.
Sides said he doesn’t want to see a “terrible lack of leadership” from the governor deprive graduating seniors of one of the most important events of their lives. Sides and other school board members urged parents to call or email the governor’s office to encourage him to modify his executive order.
“This is going to be purely on a voluntary basis,” Sides said. “If there are any students or parents concerned about the safety of family members or students, they are certainly under no obligation to participate in the festivities. Everyone has the option to opt out if they feel it’s in the best interest of their families.”