District shifts to drive-in ceremonies this week at Events Center

PASO ROBLES — The Paso Robles Joint Unified School District canceled its mini-graduation ceremonies Tuesday during a special meeting after being advised to do so by state health officials earlier in the day.

With the mini-graduation option taken away, trustees voted 6-0 — Chris Bausch did not attend the meeting — to move forward with drive-thru or drive-in style graduation ceremonies this week, possibly at the Paso Robles Event Center.

Last night after the meeting, PRJUSD settled on drive-in ceremonies at the Event Center at 6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

PRHS graduates initially scheduled for Wednesday evening were moved to Thursday at 6 p.m. One car per graduate will be allowed; no limos or stretch vehicles. Gates will open at 5:15 p.m. and California Vehicle Code applies.

“Despite today’s disappointing news, we could not be more proud of our Class of 2020,” District officials stated on Facebook Tuesday night after the meeting. “The resiliency you have shown in adapting to and overcoming the challenges of 2020 has been truly inspirational. We wish you every future success, and we are confident you will change the world for the better.”

The first of 17 mini-ceremonies for PRHS, Liberty and Independence high school seniors were scheduled to begin Wednesday at War Memorial Stadium in Paso Robles and continue through Saturday.

Superintendent Curt Dubost explained that health officials said the mini-ceremonies were not allowed under current guidelines for gatherings.

“Do not blame the local health officials. It is outside of their purview and has nothing to do with anybody here locally,” Dubost said. “The unfortunate fact is that the state is approving gatherings only for cultural, religious or protest march purposes, not for something like this. So there was no way for us to continue to move forward with this legally.”

PRJUSD has been planning this for months and staff was preparing War Memorial Stadium on Tuesday when word came down from the state.

The plan was to have small groups of no more than 25 seniors participate in a traditional graduation ceremony, all while maintaining appropriate social distance and wearing masks. Each senior could have only eight of their friends and family seated on the field during the ceremony. For each mini-ceremony, there would have been less than 225 people.

“We really wanted this to be special. We didn’t want it to be drive-thru. We wanted it to be personal and really, really special. And we are distraught that we can’t do that. Given that we can’t, we don’t recommend that we violate the law. We do recommend that we look for another way to do something for them.”

After Dubost gave his recommendation, trustee Christopher Arend made a motion to move forward with the mini-graduation ceremonies. It was seconded by Lance Gannon but failed 4-2.

Arend explained that District staff had taken every precaution and was following every guideline.

“We have no indication from the health department that anything we have done poses any additional risk to health,” Arend said. “The one reason we have been told we can’t do this is because it constitutes a ‘gathering’ as prohibited by the governor. I think we have a situation here of peacefully assembling our students to get their diplomas.”

Trustees agreed with Arend, saying they were behind staying the course and holding the mini-ceremonies on principle. But they were fearful San Luis Obispo County and or state officials would be forced to step in and stop them once they got started.

“I love the fact that you make that argument Mr. Arend,” said trustee Joel Peterson. “It is so noble. It’s the right thing to do. As much as I want to vote for it, I think that we are going to put ourselves in a situation where we have graduation on Thursday, and I think the county would use their force, their gumption, whatever it is their persuasion to have this not happen on Friday, Saturday and Sunday which would rob people of all getting the same thing.”

After Arend’s motion failed, the discussion turned toward canceling the mini-ceremonies and the possibility of having either a drive-thru or drive-in graduation later this week. Before adjourning, District staff preferred a drive-in ceremony and were confident it could get done this week.

The next school board meeting was scheduled for 5 p.m. on Thursday, July 23. Trustees are expected to finalize plans for reopening the school for the fall semester.

Getting through this together, Paso Robles