After months of planning, discussing and preparing for an in-person graduation for Edgemont’s class of 2020, school administrators announced on July 23 that they planned to cancel the in-person celebration after learning that a group of senior students may have been exposed to COVID-19.
According to two parents of students who were alleged to have been exposed to the virus, the scare was based off of a false positive COVID-19 test result and that none of the students referenced by the administration were actually exposed to the virus.
On July 19, an Edgemont High School graduate who was directly involved with one of the EHS seniors reported that the graduate had taken a rapid test which came back positive for the virus. The senior, who had been mingling with a friend group of 14 other seniors, took two rapid tests and one laboratory test. The two rapid tests both yielded negative results. The student is still awaiting a laboratory test result. After the positive test result, the graduate later took multiple rapid tests and two laboratory tests, which all yielded negative results.
The 15 seniors in the friend group also took a laboratory test prior to being allowed to spend time with one another. According to a parent, all those tests had come back negative, subsequent tests of all the seniors after the purported exposure came back negative, and none of the students had been displaying any symptoms of the virus.
In a letter to the school community on July 29, Superintendent Victoria Kniewel said the Westchester County Department of Health had confirmed that some graduating seniors had had positive exposure to COVID-19.
“Since we must abide by the Department of Health guidance, we felt the only responsible choice was to move our in-person ceremony to a virtual one,” she wrote. “With the knowledge that members of this class had a potential positive exposure, we didn’t feel we could risk exposing others.”
According to a parent whose child had contact with the Edgemont graduate who was purported to have COVID-19, the New York State Department of Health had not reached out to his or the graduate’s family regarding the supposed exposure. The parent said the school administration had contacted the Edgemont graduate’s family but had not contacted his own family.
Another parent whose child was allegedly exposed said no parents of the group of 15 seniors had been contacted by the Department of Health or the school administration.
Kniewel did not respond to questions sent by the Inquirer by press time, but did release a statement that acknowledged “the heartache and extreme frustration our graduating seniors and their families have experienced as we made the very difficult decision to cancel our in-person graduation.”
“This was a decision that was not made lightly and was one of the most difficult I’ve had to work through during my tenure as superintendent. Ultimately, we had to place safety as our highest priority,” she wrote. “We have communicated directly with these families about our decision-making process and our need to put the safety of our students and staff above all else. We are extremely proud of the resilience shown by our graduating seniors.”
A representative at the New York State Department of Health told the Inquirer a person within the community who was not a student in the senior class had tested positive for the virus and that because the individual had attended a party with 15 individuals, some of whom were members of the senior class, there was concern that those students may have been exposed. The representative said there was no information to indicate the test was a false positive.
According to the New York State Department of Health representative, the agency did not advise the district to cancel the graduation. The DOH also said Edgemont schools representatives consulted with the Westchester County Health Department and made the decision to cancel in part because “they felt they could not ensure adequate social distancing between attendees.”
The Westchester County Communications Department did not respond to a request for comment on behalf of the Westchester County Department of Health by press time.
Discussions about what form the EHS graduation should take first arose in May and June. The school administration held multiple conference calls with parents and seniors to figure out how to celebrate graduation in light of the pandemic. Following guidance from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in June, several neighboring school districts, including Scarsdale, held variations of socially distanced in-person graduation ceremonies limited to 150 participants. Edgemont Jr./Sr. High School Principal Kyle Hosier told the Inquirer in June that the administration had considered moving up the date for the in-person event, but the consensus, he said, was to wait until July 28 in case the allowable size of gatherings might increase.
On June 14, the NYS Department of Health released guidance allowing in-person graduations as of June 26 with limitations. According to the guidelines, ceremonies had to take place outdoors with a maximum of 150 attendees.
In July the administration decided to only allow seniors to attend the ceremony, while parents and relatives would be allowed to watch a livestream of the ceremony.
On July 23, five days before Edgemont’s planned in-person ceremony, the district canceled the graduation and scheduled two listening sessions that same day, one for parents and one for students.
Multiple parents of the students who were believed to have had exposure to COVID-19 joined the conference to explain that the alleged exposure was based on a false positive test result. According to one parent, the listening session was “strange,” and administrators, saying their decision was final, were not willing to change course.
“To make matters worse they pin the blame on a group of seniors who then got bullied and ridiculed and blamed … because they were scapegoated as the reason why the graduation wasn’t taking place,” said a parent whose child was purportedly exposed to COVID-19. “There wasn’t any exposure to any COVID because [the graduate] did not have COVID.”
In the July 29 letter responding to community criticism over the decision to cancel graduation, Kniewel wrote she understood the decision was not a “popular choice” but that she would never ask a student or family to “forgo this important rite of passage for anything other than the well-being and safety of their fellow students and educators.”
“As the person charged with the safety and security of our school community, I must choose safety,” she wrote. “To do anything else would be reckless.”
In lieu of an in-person graduation, Kniewel wrote that the district would hold a “drive-through diploma pick up and presentation” as well as a prerecorded “professionally produced video commencement,” which was set to be released to students the evening of Thursday, July 30.
On July 27 and 28, the district allowed students to drive into the school’s back parking lot to receive their diplomas. According to a parent, students did not get out of their cars to receive the diplomas and instead had their diplomas passed through their car windows.
To honor the EHS class of 2020, the district gave out congratulatory yard signs in May, held two car parades and hosted a virtual magic show in June for graduating seniors.
As school districts in New York prepare to submit their plans this week to the state for reopening in September, Edgemont has been fashioning a hybrid plan for students to learn both in the school building and remotely. Since a purported false positive test led to the cancelation of a 150 in-person graduation, one parent questioned how the school would react in the future if a student gets a positive COVID-19 test.
“This incident was a scare that is unfortunately only a glimpse into much bigger decisions and problems that we will be facing over the coming years in our school district and lives in general,” they said. “There will no doubt be a number of kids in the coming year who will actually test positive, not a false positive. When this eventually occurs how will our district be able to open all the classrooms if we can’t even organize a socially distanced graduation for 150 EHS seniors outside?”