Westport announces plans for prom, graduation in bid to 'end the year as normal as possible'

Photo of Katrina Koerting
Senior Jill Gault, center, celebrates graduation during the Staples High School Class of 2018 commencement exercises Friday, June 22, 2018, in Westport, Conn.

Senior Jill Gault, center, celebrates graduation during the Staples High School Class of 2018 commencement exercises Friday, June 22, 2018, in Westport, Conn.

Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — School officials are looking to end the school year as close to normal as possible, including loosening some restrictions and resuming end of the year activities like prom and graduation.

Graduation plans are still in the works, but it is currently scheduled for June 17 on the football field with a rain date of June 18. Prom will be next weekend.

The news comes as the number of positive COVID-19 cases continues to drop in the district and town, even after spring break, which officials worried could cause a spike.

“We did not see a substantial impact so that’s great,” Suzanne Levasseur, the district’s health services supervisor, said at this week’s school board meeting.

Over the past two weeks there have been 18 total cases of the virus in the district, with only six active cases as of May 3, Levasseur said, adding Westport is on the lower end of the moderate level within the state’s classification system.

In addition to the decreasing cases, more students and staff are also vaccinated, officials said.

The district previously hosted two clinics for school employees and recently held one for students 16 and older where 250 students received their first Pfizer dose. Students were also able to get vaccinated at a clinic New Canaan hosted, while others have gotten the inoculation on their own.

“Our clinic was critical in getting it started,” schools Superintendent Thomas Scarice said on Tuesday, adding the state’s current vaccine supply now makes it easier for families to find appointments on their own so the students can receive their second dose.

“I would really love to have our senior class vaccinated by graduation,” Scarice said.

A “very high percentage” of staff is also vaccinated now, either through the district’s clinics or on their own, he said.

Under the current plans, two guests will be allowed per graduate, though Scarice said the number could increase as restrictions continue to loosen at the state level.

“We expect it to be a very good and inclusive event,” he said.

Last year’s COVID-19 restrictions turned the graduation into a car parade, allowing graduates to cross the stage to receive their diploma but then immediately return to their vehicle.

This year’s event will let all of the seniors graduate together in one event, most likely on the football field, making this the first time graduation has been at the field in 27 years.

Seniors will also get to experience their prom, though with modifications. The event will be split between two nights — May 14 and 15 — at Staples because of the size of the graduating class, which has about 470 students. There will be mitigation protocols as well as spacing and size limitations in place — all approved by the health district.

“Usually it is held off site and on one night but we decided to hold it here since they usually have a junior prom at Staples and never had a chance to have it,” said Staples High School Principal Stafford Thomas. “Also, when we were planning in April, the options were amusement parks or the zoo due to capacity requirements at the time.”

He said he hoped “the seniors have a wonderful time” and the event gives them “a chance to feel as though things are returning to normal.”

There will also be a senior picnic, play, awards nights and the PTA graduation party. The senior internship is also resuming.

“This is my second year at Staples, so this is a big improvement,” Thomas said. “When it is all said and done, there is one traditional performance/celebration that won’t take place but we added the picnic so our seniors will have had the same number of celebratory events taking place this year.”

At Monday’s school board meeting, Scarice also announced that Field Day would return and the principals are working on end-of-the-year ceremonies at the lower grade levels, which will be outside and under state guidelines.

Scarice and Levasseur said they expect Pfizer vaccine approval will soon expand to those 12 years and older, which will continue to help.

While the vaccine data is welcome news, the overall drop in cases has allowed the district to start loosening some restrictions, including letting multiple classes play together at recess outside while wearing masks and allowing some visitors back into the schools for business or educational purposes.

Seating restrictions will also be eased in the classroom, allowing desks with Plexiglass to face each other with, paving the way for classrooms to go back to a more normal setup, school officials said.

“Our rates are decreasing at a very encouraging pace,” Scarice said Tuesday. “We are reexamining some of our policies in place.”

The new policies would be applied throughout the district, but would most likely be used the most at the elementary level, he said.

“We want to end the year as normal as possible so we can start the school year hopefully with the pandemic in the rearview mirror,” Scarice said.