UPDATE: The Riverhead School District confirmed Friday that the district will now hold one commencement ceremony Friday, June 25. The ceremony will start at 5:30 p.m. at Coach Mike McKillop Memorial Field.
Original Story: The Riverhead Board of Education urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo to leave future decisions regarding mask use to local school districts as more and more restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic continue to be lifted.
While the governor held a celebratory event Tuesday when the state reached the 70% milestone for first-dose vaccinations in adults, the restrictions that were lifted did not factor in schools.
In a letter Tuesday to the governor, the seven board members wrote how they were “extremely frustrated with the conflicting messages” by the state related to mask guidance and how the community “felt the crushing weight of disappointment” at the June 7 decision that students can only shed masks outdoors.
“As board members, we live here,” they wrote. “We know our community best. In Riverhead specifically, our COVID-19 infection rate is currently 0.57%. Given this low rate, it seems inconceivable that the state is still requiring our students and staff to wear masks indoors — especially in the oppressive heat.”
Interim superintendent Christine Tona said during Tuesday’s BOE meeting that the district is holding out hope that commencement can be held all together on Friday, June 25. The current plan to meet state guidelines is for the ceremony to be split with half the students graduating on Saturday, June 26.
“Unfortunately [the governor] did not lift restrictions on schools,” Ms. Tona said Tuesday. “We are hopeful that changes will be made which will allow us to still have one graduation ceremony for our high school students on Friday, June 25. So stay tuned. We are monitoring the situation. We want nothing more than to bring our seniors together as one class as they deserve to celebrate all their accomplishments over their education career in Riverhead.”
Riverhead held a virtual ceremony last year and then handed out diplomas to students over the course of a few days.
The school board, in its letter to the governor, said the decision on masks cannot wait until to the start of the next school year in September. They urged the governor to grant school boards immediate authority to change their district’s mask guidance.
High school regents and final exams are currently underway before the last day of school next week.
“Our students deserve the freedom to finish their school year unmasked and with their smiling faces on display!” the school board wrote.
They again advocated for the district to hold one outdoor graduation ceremony, noting the restrictions lifted on Tuesday allow outdoor sports venues to return to full capacity.
“With our graduation ceremony scheduled for next week, we hope that you will allow our graduates the ability to join together as one class for the final time in over a year to celebrate the important milestone,” the board members wrote.
More than half of Suffolk County’s population has now been fully vaccinated, according to the Suffolk County Department of Health. Children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine.
In the letter, the board members said the district has been “extremely diligent about adhering to all regulations issued by [the governor’s] office.”
Districts have been required to report to the state DOH confirmed cases, which are published in an online database. The most recent figures, accounting for nearly the entire school year at this point, show 223 total students testing positive and 95 total teachers/staff testing positive.