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Outdoor graduation ceremonies of more than 500 people OK with restrictions, Cuomo says

Students and parents maintain social distance as they

Students and parents maintain social distance as they attend the Oyster Bay High School graduation on July 18, 2020. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

High schools, colleges and universities can host outdoor graduation ceremonies with more than 500 people on Long Island and across the state, subject to capacity restrictions, proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test or complete vaccination, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Monday.

During a news briefing with reporters, Cuomo said the state wants to give graduating students and their families a chance to celebrate the milestone with a sense of normalcy — following a year in which many graduations went virtual or were dramatically reduced in size.

"Graduation ceremonies are important, and we hope schools have graduation ceremonies," Cuomo said, adding that virtual or drive-in celebrations remain the safest option. "We just want them to be safe and we want them smart."

Effective May 1, "large-scale" outdoor graduation ceremonies of 500 or more people will be permitted at stadiums or performance venues with at least 2,500 seats — or up to 20% capacity. Attendees must show proof of a negative COVID test or full vaccination, according to state guidance.

Medium-scale outdoor ceremonies of 201 to 500 people will be allowed if venues such as a catering hall, park or football field limit attendance to 33% capacity and attendees provide negative test results or proof of completed vaccinations.

Small outdoor ceremonies of up to 200 people will be permitted at 50% capacity while negative COVID-19 test results or proof of vaccination will be optional, the guidance states.

Last year, all graduation ceremonies were limited to 150 people.

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Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said commencement ceremonies can be done safely. "Despite living through dark times, our students have continued to shine bright," she said in a statement. "They deserve to be celebrated for their accomplishments."

Indoor graduation ceremonies will face tighter restrictions.

Facilities holding events with up to 100 people can be held at 50% capacity with an optional negative test or proof of vaccination. Ceremonies of 101 to 150 people will be allowed at 33% capacity and events of more than 150 can move forward at 10% capacity — each with required proof of a negative test or vaccination.

Schools must notify local health departments of their graduation plans and enforce mask wearing and social distancing.

Local high schools said the guidance will allow them to host safe graduations and senior proms. The guidance also applies to elementary and middle schools.

"We know how important it is for our seniors to end their senior year together," said Bill Heidenreich, president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents and superintendent of the Valley Stream Central High School District. "We fully anticipate moving forward with some form of a more traditional graduation ceremony and other end-of-year activities for our seniors, who have been apart for so long."

Yiendhy Farrelly, superintendent of the West Babylon School District, said the district plans on hosting a traditional outdoor graduation ceremony.

"We will comply with all New York State protocols regarding social distancing, capacity limits and testing requirements to ensure everyone’s safety while we celebrate the culmination of our seniors’ high school experience," Farrelly said.

Some Long Island universities said they will evaluate the new guidance before announcing commencement plans.

"Long Island University will continue to work closely with New York State Department of Health officials to evaluate the commencement guidelines announced today and consider all options," said LIU Post Chief Operating Officer Joseph Schaefer in an email.

In a statement, Hofstra University said: "we are appreciative that the governor has given us official guidance on commencement ceremonies and COVID-19 restrictions, and expect to finalize our plans shortly."

Stony Brook University is planning 10 in-person commencement ceremonies from May 19 to 21, hosted by the individual colleges and schools outdoors at LaValle Stadium. Attendees will be required to comply with COVID-19 protocols before entering the stadium.

Adelphi University said it will host virtual graduation ceremonies for the class of 2021 on May 24 and on May 25 for the class of 2020. Students from both classes will be allowed to have a "grad walk" in their cap and gown across a decorated commencement-style stage later this month.

With Bart Jones and Antonio Planas

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