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Graduation plan sparked threat of hefty fines

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Parents and community leaders in Logan, a small town in eastern New Mexico, had hoped to celebrate their 22 graduating seniors this summer with an outdoor ceremony on a football field – a tribute to their resilience amid a deadly pandemic.

But the school district says it was forced to scrap the plan after the state Department of Health threatened an “exorbitant” fine for violating New Mexico’s ban on mass gatherings. The district calculated the potential penalty at $1.75 million, or $5,000 for each person, if the crowd had reached 350.

State officials, in turn, say they notified school districts six weeks ago that any graduation ceremony had to comply with public health orders aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease that has killed 497 residents so far.

The Public Education Department recommended virtual ceremonies or drive-up events that kept families in their cars.

In the end, Logan opted for a drive-through ceremony after a backup plan for a ceremony in Texas fell through.

But many residents weren’t happy about it, contrasting the cancellation of their outdoor ceremony with the protests that have gone forward throughout New Mexico.

Thousands of New Mexicans have turned out this summer to protest police brutality and racial injustice.

Logan Superintendent Dennis Roch, a former state representative, said the district had planned a safe event – outdoors, with chairs in groups of five, spaced 6 feet apart.

It was set for Saturday last week, with attendance limited to people with tickets and masks recommended.

“We felt like we were taking a lot of precautions,” Roch said.

In a letter to the district Friday, the state Department of Health didn’t threaten a specific total fine.

The notice said that going forward with the graduation would have violated New Mexico’s ban on public gatherings, resulting in penalties of either $100 per offense or up to $5,000 per violation, depending on which law the state pursued action under.

Logan School District said on its Facebook page that it would have faced a $1.75 million penalty, or $5,000 for each person.

Nancy Martira, a spokeswoman for the Public Education Department, said Logan and other districts were warned ahead of time that any graduation ceremony would have to comply with state public health orders.

In a May 15 memo, the education department suggested alternatives, such as drive-through ceremonies in which students and their families stayed in their cars.

“Everybody was working really hard not to disappoint students and our families,” Martira said Tuesday. “We know this is such a milestone and something families really look forward to celebrating together.”

Logan School district, meanwhile, pursued a backup plan – holding a graduation across the state line in Texas.

The graduation was temporarily planned for a church in Dalhart about 70 miles from Logan, but a county official there prohibited the church from holding the ceremony.

The district moved to Plan C – drive-through ceremony.

“We scrambled a little bit,” Roch said, “but in the end our students felt honored. They knew our school and community were doing everything we could to get them the graduation they deserved.”

The district’s Facebook page has a photo showing school board President Scott Osborn shaking hands and handing a diploma to the valedictorian. Neither person is wearing a mask.

Quay County, home to Logan, has six confirmed cases of the coronavirus. On a per-capita basis, its case rate is 25th out of 33 counties in New Mexico.

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