Dear Governor DeWine,
My name is Don Horstman, and I am the superintendent of Ottawa-Glandorf Local Schools. I am asking you to seriously consider allowing local school districts to hold in person commencement ceremonies in consultation with local Boards of Education and county health departments.
I want to start by saying that I firmly believe you and Dr. Acton, and the state of Ohio have done an incredible job of leading the nation in responding to this public health emergency. I appreciate your calm and measured response up to this point. I appreciate the stress both of you are under, and your ability to be both firm and flexible in your directives and responses to questions and suggestions. You have been a part of incredible lows and amazing successes with a ping-pong game of emotions as you have dealt with this pandemic and kept all of us safe and informed.
Two weeks ago, I went from elated to devastated. Upon hearing you state you did not see a reason schools could not have in person commencement exercises if they were able to hold these events safely, I was cheering in my office. I then experienced one of the lowest moments of the last six weeks when you came out the very next day with guidelines which effectively prohibited a true in-person commencement ceremony. I was incredibly disappointed in the announcement. We have plans for all our graduates to be spread out on the football field with limited guests, who would also be spread out in the stadium bleachers. Social distancing guidelines, restrictions on guests, limits on the distribution of common items such as programs, and the wearing of masks would all have been included in our plan. We feel we could follow suggested guidelines and have a safe event.
I think we are doing an incredible disservice to our seniors. 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. How do you tell these graduates it is safe for people to go to a bar and have a beer, but it is not safe to follow safety guidelines and have an in-person commencement ceremony? This cannot be the message we want to send to these students.
Our students leaving for basic training after graduation weigh heavily on my mind. We are a small rural school with only 113 students graduating this year, and our community knows the students well, and the students know each other very well. How do I in good conscience look kids in the eye who will be protecting our nation in a few short months, and tell them we cannot protect them for 60 minutes so they can be recognized for one of life’s greatest achievements, their high school graduation. I have watched these amazing young people grow so much over the past few years. These kids are in events and activities with my own children. Some of them have spent many hours at our house for campfires, swimming, and cookouts. I have watched them grow into the type of people everyone would be proud to have as a part of their organization or family. If we delay our ceremony until June in the hope of having an in-person ceremony, many of these students will be in basic training and unable to attend.
I have been involved in commencement ceremonies and graduations as an administrator for 19 years. One thing I have always tried to stress to the graduates is the importance of the day, and the reverence they should have for this ceremony. They want to leave a positive impression on all of our guests who attend, and I tell them they need to take time to really soak in the moment and enjoy the experience, as it is the last time in their lives that the entire graduating class will ever be together again. I stress to them the importance of this day to their classmates, their parents, grandparents, friends and guests, as they enjoy one of the most important milestones of their lives. This is the moment when they are officially recognized by the school district, their families, and the community, as having joined the adult world. I stress finding things they will remember forever on that day, because it is so special and so life changing.
I do not normally wear my emotions on my sleeve, but I admit to having tears in my eyes as I put this together in my office. I am glad no one else is around as I write this letter. I am heartbroken for these seniors, and for all the things they have not been able to be a part of this year. At OGHS, our students have had tournament runs cut short, the Senior Musical, Dinner Theater, Prom and the Senior class trip to New York canceled. When you came out with graduation guidelines, I feel you dealt this class the final and, in my mind, most devastating blow. In-person graduation for their full class was not allowed. I have witnessed firsthand the disappointment experienced by these students as milestone after milestone, and once in a lifetime event after once in a lifetime event have been taken away from them. This has led me to spending a lot of time with our Administrative team attempting to put a plan in place to give these students at least one major milestone event back before they leave our hallways as students forever. We are confident we can do this safely and wish you would allow us the opportunity.
While reading about Vice President Pence and his participation in the Air Force Academy commencement ceremony last month, I came across a picture of the cadets wearing masks and spread out across the football field. My first thought was this is how we can handle graduation at Ottawa-Glandorf High School. Here is part of a paragraph from a story about the Air Force Academy event: “The graduation was moved up from May 28 to allow the class to celebrate together, albeit with social distancing, ensuring their health and safety by adhering to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Defense Deportment guidelines on preventing the spread of COVID-19.” To me the sentence about celebrating TOGETHER and SAFELY is incredibly important. My question is why deny schools in Ohio the right to make this decision on the local level? If the districts work in coordination with their local county health departments, and have the local school Board approve the plan, why would we ever contemplate denying the Class of 2020 this once in lifetime opportunity?
If our state was continuously able to keep home improvement stores and gas stations open, if we are now able to safely allow elective surgeries, dental procedures, begin to open factories, distribution centers, general offices, and construction sites, and if we can make plans to begin to open retail stores, bars, restaurants, and even tattoo parlors, then I am not sure why we would deny our seniors an opportunity to safely participate in an event which can NEVER be recreated.
Superintendent Ottawa-Glandorf Local Schools