Members of Ottoville High School's Class of 2020 await the awarding of their diplomas while maintaining social distancing protocols in the school parking lot. (photo submitted)
Members of Ottoville High School's Class of 2020 await the awarding of their diplomas while maintaining social distancing protocols in the school parking lot. (photo submitted)

PUTNAM COUNTY — This past weekend, three school districts — Fort Jennings, Ottoville, and Pandora-Gilboa — held commencement ceremonies for graduating high school seniors. In the coming weeks, the remaining six will do the same.

On the face of it, though certainly cause for celebration, for remark, graduation ceremonies generally aren’t novel, don’t break entirely new ground.

Except this year, they do, and will, what with physical distancing replacing handshakes and hugs; parking lots in place of bunting festooned gymnasiums; and proud parents securely packed into the family auto, rather than joyously crushed together in grandstand seating. In this the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the interests of public safety, of reducing the spread and limiting the exposure of those most at risk, orders from the State of Ohio curtail celebrations, limit gatherings to no more than 10.

And no small number of public officials, school administrators, teachers, parents, and graduating seniors are questioning the rightness of that action.

In a public letter sent to Governor Mike DeWine, Ottawa-Glandorf Superintendent Don Horstman took the governor to task.

“I think we are doing an incredible disservice to our seniors,” Horstman wrote, in part. “I went to a large home improvement store the weekend after this announcement, and you could barely get another car in the parking lot. To me, the message being sent to our seniors is, we can open a business so people can buy lumber, building products, and gardening supplies, but we cannot use the same approach for high school commencement ceremonies. We are denying students a once in a lifetime opportunity that can never be recreated. If we can open bars and restaurants, how can we deny these young people this opportunity?”

That same sentiment has played a significant role in the creation of new legislation now before the Ohio General Assembly. Senate Bill 311 (see related story this page) addresses the governor’s ability to control graduations — their setting, their timing, their attendees — strips the governor of any authority in the matter.

“I felt that the schools, especially in Putnam County, were prepared,” Ohio Representative Jim Hoops (R-District 81) said in an interview last week. “Ottawa had a great plan, social distancing-wise, because the seniors have been decimated, as far as their year. And there was a chance here to give them an opportunity to come together, kind of like when (Vice President Mike Pence) out to the Air Force Academy. They did the graduation where the cadets were all separated on the football field. Which is what Ottawa wanted to do, something like that. But the governor put a stop to all that.”

Key to the criticism, Putnam County Health Commissioner Kim Rieman proposed, is the nature of the districts here, the size of the graduating classes. While praising Governor DeWine and Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton for their overall performance in the face of the pandemic, Rieman questioned the rule.

“We are unique here in Putnam County, that our schools are small,” she said. “I feel that an in-person graduation ceremony could have been planned and could have been conducted safely. I think we’re a little bit different in rural Ohio with our small class sizes. I would have liked to be able to see an in-person ceremony for our graduates.”

Barring an immediate reversal of the order, only one county district holds out any likely possibility of an in-person graduation exercise. The Miller City-New Cleveland School District has delayed it’s commencement ceremony until Sunday, June 17, in the hope the order will be lifted.