Students at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé go through the hallways mostly without face masks during a break between classes in April shortly after the Juneau Board of Education ended a mask mandate. The decision was controversial due to concerns by some people that events such as proms and graduation ceremonies could become spreader events for COVID-19. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Students at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé go through the hallways mostly without face masks during a break between classes in April shortly after the Juneau Board of Education ended a mask mandate. The decision was controversial due to concerns by some people that events such as proms and graduation ceremonies could become spreader events for COVID-19. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Officials hope for healthy graduation ceremonies

199% increase in COVID-19 cases the past two weeks has some concerned about lack of mandates.

It’s a near-certain truism Juneau’s three high school graduation ceremonies on Sunday will be a celebratory occasion for all of the students and family members attending.

But it’s also inevitable the COVID-19 “recommend, but not require” guidelines for the ceremonies won’t be cause for celebration by everybody — especially with a large increase in cases the past two weeks.

There were 356 confirmed cases in the City and Borough of Juneau reporting area for the seven-day period ending Tuesday, with the average of 51 cases a day representing a 199% percent increase in cases compared to the average two weeks ago, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control And Prevention.

A graph shows the average number of COVID-19 cases in the Juneau City and Borough reporting area has increased to 51 per day as of Tuesday, a 199% spike compared to the average two weeks ago. But a spokesperson at Bartlett Regional Hospital said it appears the facility is on the downside of that increase, with no patients infected with the virus as of Wednesday and a significant decrease in employees absent due to the virus. (Data by the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention)

A graph shows the average number of COVID-19 cases in the Juneau City and Borough reporting area has increased to 51 per day as of Tuesday, a 199% spike compared to the average two weeks ago. But a spokesperson at Bartlett Regional Hospital said it appears the facility is on the downside of that increase, with no patients infected with the virus as of Wednesday and a significant decrease in employees absent due to the virus. (Data by the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention)

Juneau’s current risk level is categorized as medium, with the influx of cruise ship tourists and local high school proms cited by officials as contributing factors to the increase in cases. But Erin Hardin, a spokesperson for Bartlett Regional Hospital, said the situation there indicates the effects of the spike aren’t dire.

“Here what we’re seeing at the hospital is we’re on the downside of that spike, which is nice,” she said. There are zero patients with COVID-19 at the hospital currently and “we’ve also had a noticeable decrease in the number of staffers who are out with COVID.”

The school district is responding to the increase by “strongly encouraging” face masks without requiring them, asking people with symptoms not to attend, using noise makers instead of cheering for individual graduates, and asking everyone to celebrate afterward outside instead in the indoor common areas.

“We’re trying to be responsive to the COVID situation, as we have all year,” Superintendent Bridgette Weiss said Wednesday. “So knowing that we’re bringing a lot of people together we wanted to be as safe as possible.”

But any event during a pandemic isn’t going to be zero-risk, so the challenge for district officials is determining what are reasonable precautionary measures for the current situation, Weiss said. She acknowledged social distancing won’t be practically possible during the indoor ceremonies and not everyone will be wearing masks, for instance, but the trade-off to remedy that would be rules that would diminish the occasion for many.

“The only way to have social distancing would be to have a very limited number of tickets per graduate,” she said. “So do we have a policy that every graduate gets two people that can come and then we can distance, or are they able to have more family?”

Each graduating student gets 10 tickets — and can ask other students for unused tickets — but it appears not all of the tickets among what so far is about 140 students will be distributed for the ceremony at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé, said Jowielle Corpuz, the school’s student representative on the school district board. She said so far she hasn’t heard any complaints about the guidelines from fellow students.

“My own personal opinion is that our senior class is doing everything to make the graduating class ceremony safe,” she said.

But Nancy Liddle, the student representative for the district board at Thunder Mountain High School, said she is hearing some students say they would prefer a mask mandate because “it makes sense with the rising case numbers.”

Liddle, a senior, said she has continued to wear a mask since the district made them optional in April, estimating perhaps 10% of the students at school are doing so, and that will continue during Sunday’s ceremony.

“My family (attending) is my mom, my dad and my sister, and I know my entire family will be masking,” she said.

The risk of infection between students during the ceremony will likely be about the same as being among her peers daily during the school year, but the extra people coming in from out of town may heighten concerns, Liddle said. But the possibility of getting infected is less worrisome now to many than earlier during the pandemic.

“I just think most people feel a lot safer than they did before in terms of COVID, they’ve already been sick and vaccinated,” she said.

A parent unhappy with the guidelines, yet understanding of the dilemma of balancing safety with celebration, is Dave Schwartz, who is coming from Seattle with several family members for his daughter’s graduation at JDHS. He said the school district’s board’s decision to end mask mandates several weeks ago, providing regular surgical rather than N95 masks at ceremonies for people wanting them, and expecting people not to cheer for graduates suggest the district isn’t doing all it can to prevent infections.

The decision to end mandatory masks was hotly contested during the board meeting when it occurred — as such policies have been throughout the pandemic — with concerns about the virus spreading during prom and graduation expressed by some in favor of keeping the mandate. Schwartz said the recent experience with prom suggests those concerns are well-founded.

“After my daughter’s prom there were a bunch of kids that got COVID and my daughter couldn’t fly out to Nebraska for her sister’s (college) graduation,” he said in an interview Wednesday, noting his daughter was in close contact with three people who tested positive after the event, although she ultimately was not infected herself.

Corpuz said she believes her school’s prom did result in a number of COVID-19 cases, although none of those involved became seriously ill, but that was a far different environment since about 230 people crowded into a far smaller space at the Eaglecrest Ski Area lodge than the space that will be used for the JDHS ceremony Sunday.

“At prom, I was constantly bumping into people,” she said.

Schwartz said he is satisfied with Weiss’ viewpoints after talking to her this week and “they’re probably doing the best they can do given the resources they have,” even if he feels the guidelines are short of being suitably effective. Furthermore, he recognizes the enthusiasm his daughter has for sharing the momentous occasion with visiting family members — who except for her father have never been in Juneau before — so expecting other families to limit attendance in the name of allowing social distancing isn’t a fair ask.

“I think she’s very excited to show off Juneau, and have us meet her friends and all those things,” he said. “I think everybody should be able to go. I can’t be hypocritical.”

That doesn’t mean Schwartz isn’t feeling the frustration about the possibility of people ignoring recommendations such as not attending if they have symptoms and wearing masks as a precaution – similar to what many people everywhere have expressed for more than two years.

“I’m tired of having to make these choices because people are being selfish or just can’t see past themselves,” he said.

Weiss said she has to trust people will act responsibly, keeping in mind “this is a life event for families.”

“We know that it will not be perfect,” she said. “We know that events in this community will not be perfect. There is always some risk when you’re in a pandemic.”

But after canceled or limited events during the past three school years, Weiss said her primary thought is “we’re just so relieved to be able to hold these events and we are excited to celebrate on Sunday.”

“The whole world needs some celebration,” she said. “This is a way Juneau can celebrate these kids who have experienced so much these past two years. It is a time to pause and be grateful and reflect on what’s great in this world. We need that this week.”

Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com.

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