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Graduating seniors at Lincoln County’s high schools will be back to receiving diplomas in front of a live audience of friends and family. (Photo by Michael Heinbach)

All seven high schools in Lincoln County will hold in-person graduations with live attendance next month, capping a year of unprecedented challenges.

The majority of seniors will have only spent two months of their final year inside classrooms when they receive diplomas. Lincoln County School District brought most high schoolers back to buildings April 12 — hundreds were already attending some form of in-person class under various state exemptions — while the county’s charter schools had older students in classrooms for much of the winter.

It was a chaotic and often grueling school year in the U.S., with increased failure rates from coast to coast mid-year, multiple times previous years in some districts. More than half of the 6,700 high-schoolers in Salem-Keizer Public Schools were failing at least one class at the end of the fall quarter, with failure rates disproportionately high at schools with higher rates of poverty.

Lincoln County students and educators were subjected to the dual traumas of COVID-19 and a natural disaster this school year, and they also celebrated remarkable successes.

Dozens of students and several staff members lost homes in the Echo Mountain Complex wildfires, and hundreds more were temporarily evacuated, all in the midst of existing struggles with connectivity, access deficits and the learning curve of a mostly remote educational environment — sometimes simultaneous with drastically altered in-person instruction which for many brought traumatic isolation.

Teachers, staff and student contended with the fear of falling ill or contributing to the spread of the virus while adapting to complex and ever-changing directives from the state.

The schools also played a role in response to the emergencies, from transportation and nutrition staff getting hot meals to wildfire evacuees to administrators and school nurses volunteering at county vaccine clinics.

According to the district’s most recent projections, the graduation rate will, in fact, rise at all but one of four district high schools. Newport High School is projected to reach a 90 percent graduation rate, up from 81.25 percent last year, and Waldport’s rate is expected to be up by almost 15 percentage points to 88 percent. Taft is projected to see a more modest gain, about 3.5 percent, while Toledo’s rate is expected to drop about 2 percent.

Majalise Tolan, the district’s secondary education director, said updated figures will be reported to the school board during its June 8 meeting. For seniors who are behind, teachers build credit assurance plans that allow students to demonstrate academic proficiency by Aug. 30 to earn credit, and the district will pay teachers to support plan completion.

There have been failures in the battle to adapt, to be sure, but there have also been triumphs, as scholar-athletes brought home state titles in everything from natural resource management to track and field.

“I am very proud of the work that Lincoln County School District has done over the last year during challenging circumstances,” Superintendent Karen Gray said. “Our students, online and in person, have worked hard with our talented staff to get as many credits and experiences as they can to graduation on time, and we look forward to celebrating their hard work.”

Seniors will have the opportunity to celebrate and say goodbye in a manner denied their immediate predecessors, who participated in pre-recorded or drive-thru 2020 commencements — they’ll receive their diplomas before a ticketed audience of friends and family.

Charter school Lincoln City Career Tech will hold the first graduation of the season at 5:30 p.m. Friday, June 4th in Lincoln City — the specific location is still pending. Masks that fully cover the mouth and nose will be required of all participants and guests. 

Eddyville Charter School will honor its graduates beginning at 7 p.m., June 11, on the football field. Masks are not required at the outdoor event, but physical distancing guidelines will be in effect.

Graduating seniors at Siletz Valley Charter and their guests will gather outside the school at 2 pm June 12. Physical distancing will be required but not masks.

The Lincoln County School District’s plan includes contingencies in the event of moving to a higher COVID risk level, such as fewer tickets and alternative locations, but Lincoln County has been granted “permanent” lower risk status thanks to its vaccination rate.

The district kicks off graduations in the south county, with a 6:30 p.m. ceremony June 11 at the Waldport High School stadium. Each graduate is allowed nine ticketed guests.

Seniors at the other three high schools will walk the next day. At Taft, where seniors have a tradition of graduating on the minute of their year, commencement will be held at 11:21 a.m., with four guest per student at the stadium.

Toledo High School seniors will don caps and gowns for a 2 p.m. stadium graduation, with to ten guests for each graduate. And graduating seniors with up to four guests each will gather in the Newport High School gym at 6 p.m.

Masks will not be required at outdoor graduations at Waldport, Taft or Toledo, but those attending Newport’s graduation in the gym will need to wear face coverings. Physical distancing is required at all events.

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