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Billings high school graduations to be held at MetraPark

Billings high school graduations to be held at MetraPark

Skyview Graduation

Skyview graduates file into the arena for the graduation ceremony at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark on Sunday, May 26, 2019.

School, health and county officials have devised a plan allowing School District 2 to hold graduation ceremonies for all three Billings public high schools in the First Interstate Bank Arena at MetraPark. 

The plan calls for strict social distancing and will require a face mask for everyone who attends the May 24 ceremonies.

The plan was crafted by public health officials and infectious disease experts from Billings Clinic, and they feel confident it will mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19. 

The responsibility now will be on graduates and their families and friends to follow the requirements stipulated by the plan, said SD2 Superintendent Greg Upham. 

"You have to help us with this," Upham said of community members. 

Skyview Graduation

Skyview graduates greet teachers and staff after receiving their diplomas at the graduation ceremony at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark on Sunday, May 26, 2019.

Upham made the announcement Wednesday during a press conference attended by the principals of the three high schools, county health and school district officials, and a team from Billings Clinic. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to slow its spread had cast doubt on whether graduation ceremonies could be held this spring. For much of the past two months, superintendents from the AA school districts across the state have been puzzling over making graduation ceremonies work, Upham said. 

At one point, SD2 floated the idea of doing a ceremony with 10 graduates at a time and no attendees. Community pushback was stiff, so Upham reached out to Jim Duncan, president of the Billings Clinic Foundation and a longtime supporter of the school district, asking if experts at the Clinic would be willing to take a crack at the problem.

Infectious disease specialists at the hospital, along with the county health department, figured out a way to hold the ceremony while keeping public health risks to a minimum. 

West High graduation

Isabelle Wagler wears a decorated cap as students line up for the West High graduation ceremonies at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark on Sunday, May 26, 2019.

John Felton, CEO of RiverStone Health and Yellowstone County's public health officer, talked about the importance of weighing the gathering and celebration of important events as a community while keeping that same community safe. 

"It's important that we have the social events," he said. "We need to balance that with mitigating risks."

He noted that much can change between now and the end of May, but that under the current plan, graduation ceremonies will be held at 9 a.m., 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sunday, May 24, at the arena. Skyview High will be first, followed by Senior and then West. 

Graduates will sit six-feet apart and each will be allowed to bring two guests. Everyone entering the arena will be required to wear a mask. 

Montana Masks, the plastic face guards designed by a trio of Billings inventors, will be provided by Billings Clinic.

Traditionally the graduation march, "Pomp and Circumstance," was performed live by each school's band. That's been canceled, Upham said, in an effort to limit the number of people at the arena. 

Each student will receive two tickets for guests, another move to limit the number of people in the arena. Upham sympathized with family members and friends who would be excluded because of the two-guest cap. But he said in order to maintain social distancing it was required. 

At most, 1,200 people will be in the arena at any one time, Duncan said. 

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