WOONSOCKET — Woonsocket High School’s stripped-down, “virtual” graduation ceremony prompted a bitter rhetorical volley Saturday after Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt issued an unexpected press release excoriating School Committee Chairman Paul Bourget for doing too little to offer the Class of 2020 a “meaningful” high school graduation.

“With the easing of some social gathering restrictions, it is time for the chairman to think creatively and promptly to allow our hardworking students and families to participate in a graduation ceremony,” Baldelli-Hunt said.

Baldelli-Hunt suggested a few ways, including the possibility of using Barry Field to allow for participation from motor vehicles, that would allow school officials to offer students an improved graduation experience.

“This can and should happen,” the mayor said, “and if the leader of the school committee is not willing to take on this important task, then my office and team are ready and willing to do so.”

Reached by phone, Bourget portrayed the mayor’s statements as a disingenuous political attack whose real target is his son-in-law, Council Vice President Jon Brien, who intends to challenge her for the mayor’s job in the November election.

Given the reigning limitations on social gatherings due to COVID-19, Bourget said, planning a ceremony that protected the health and safety of students, parents and educators was incredibly challenging – and if Baldelli-Hunt’s interest in the details were truly sincere she would have reached out sooner to school officials and other stakeholders who were involved. She did not, he said.

“This is an attack,” Bourget said. “I think it’s a political jab to get at Jon through me...I think it’s very political to say I didn’t do enough or the school committee didn’t do enough. Did she read the directives from the governor and the guidelines that were laid out by the health department? I don’t think she has.”

After a substantial amount of hand-wringing that took place over at least two meetings, the school committee and Supt. Patrick McGee considered several options for proceeding with commencement exercises before settling on the plan at hand – a virtual ceremony. It will include previously recorded speeches delivered by the salutatorian, the valedictorian and home-made videos of students in caps and gowns.

Anyone can log on to the internet to watch the ceremony on June 5 after 4 p.m., the same time the ceremony would have been normally held.

It’s not perfect, Bourget says, and it wasn’t the school committee’s first choice. There was no consensus over a proposal to hold the commencement at the Rustic Drive-In. School officials worried they couldn’t guarantee students would remain in their cars and fully comply with the state’s social distancing edicts.

Initially, school officials had their hearts set on doing a compilation video of individual students, with small family gatherings, actually walking across a decorated stage to pick up their diplomas. Then Coventry High School submitted a virtually identical plan to the Rhode Island Department of Education for approval.

“They got a big fat ‘no,’” Bourget said. “A big no.”

So school officials pulled the plug on that option.

Ultimately the plan for the virtual commencement that now appears set in stone was approved by multiple stakeholders, according to Bourget. They included student leadership, the superintendent and the high school principals. The school committee signed off later.

When school officials approved the plan, Gov. Gina Raimondo’s order limiting social gatherings to no more than five people was in effect. School officials wondered aloud if the limit would be eased up in time for a normal graduation and ultimately concluded they couldn’t afford to wait to find out. “Pick a plan” was their general instruction to Supt. McGee – some plan – and stick to it.

Among the alternative suggestions that Baldelli-Hunt now submits is to hold a public ceremony later this summer, when Raimondo’s prohibitions on social gatherings are likely to be substantially more lenient that they are now.

Bourget said school officials sought feedback from students on holding a ceremony later in the summer before the opted for the virtual version.

“The kids didn’t want to do it,” he said.

In a brief phone interview about the press release, Baldelli-Hunt said she could no longer keep silent about the committee’s plans. After receiving a number of complaints from parents who think their children are being shortchanged, the mayor said, she stewed on the dilemma a bit and finally decided to make a statement.

As the mother of two Woonsocket High School graduates, Baldelli-Hunt said she agrees with aggrieved parents.

“Over the last ten weeks, students and teachers have worked hard to continue learning remotely, and seniors have really missed out on important milestones like spring sports, prom and class events,” Baldelli-Hunt said. “In honor of their willingness to move forward and complete their high school education, the school department and city government, if necessary, must now show similar leadership and provide for a celebratory finish line as our students move on to the next stage of their lives.”

Baldelli-Hunt said there were a number of other avenues school officials could have taken to improve upon the virtual ceremony. While the Rustic Drive-In may not look like a good option to the school committee, it’s good enough for Beacon Charter High School for the Arts. Baldelli-Hunt also doesn’t get why a belated ceremony wasn’t given more serious consideration – after all, Mount St. Charles Academy will do just that.

School officials could have called the Pawtucket Red Sox, she said, to see if they could borrow McCoy Stadium.

She also suggested breaking up the class into smaller groups of 100 students for a series of multiple ceremonies, or using a live TV broadcast.

Whether the weekend volley over commencement is a catalyst for additional dialogue or, perhaps, a change of course for the WHS commencement remains to be seen.

Bourget said it’s unlikely WHS will now, at this late date, veer from the virtual ceremony, as unappealing as it may seem. But he didn’t rule out the possibility that some additional component could be added to it, so long it doesn’t violate the prevailing social distancing norms. On June 1 or thereabouts, Raimondo is forecasting the state will move into Phase 2 of reopening the economy, at which point up to 15 people will be allowed to gather in one group.

Bourget says he’s open to suggestions, but the one thing school officials cannot do – even with such a relaxed cap on crowds – is hold the kind of celebration that offers the memory-making thrills of a large assembly and cheering crowds. Protecting students and families from becoming infected with a potentially fatal virus and having a grand celebration with a lot of people are simply mutually exclusive, and the school committee’s recognition of that is what shaped its decision-making.

“Safety was the number one thing that handcuffed us in terms of what we could do,” he said. “The last thing we want is for some graduate or their family to catch COVID0-19 and someone dies in their family. What kind of press release do you think we’d get from that?”

Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo

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