COVID-19 has claimed another victim in the new year: in-person social gatherings of more than 20 people, including proms, banquets and May Day celebrations at public schools, the Hawaii Department of Education said Monday.

The official ban on large school-sanctioned social events through the end of the school year did not include graduations or commencement exercises. The DOE said it will make a call on “limited in-person ceremonies” by Feb. 26.

“The factors being taken into consideration for this decision include case counts, positivity rate and guidance from county, state and national health officials,” DOE superintendent Christina Kishimoto wrote in a memo to principals and complex-level superintendents.

Farrington High School Class of 2020 graduation banners on the front of the school during COVID-19.
Farrington High School set up graduation banners at the front of its school for its Class of 2020 last spring. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The onset of the pandemic last spring and the subsequent closure of schools brushed up against such rite of passage activities as proms and spring banquets, leaving many students disappointed over their abrupt cancellation.

Traditional high school graduation ceremonies, which happen in May, also were canceled, forcing schools to adapt with drive-thru diploma collections and virtual ceremonies sometimes broadcast over local television networks.

This year may follow suit, though an entire year of pandemic living has equipped many people with the wherewithal to more actively wear masks, not gather in large groups indoors and to maintain safe distances outside in smaller clusters.

Still, Kishimoto’s memo advised school leaders to start planning now on “alternative” graduation formats such as a virtual live stream of the ceremony, staggered drive-thrus and pre-recorded videos.

“We continue to prioritize the health and safety of our students, staff and school communities and are working closely with the Department of Health on a vaccination plan for our HIDOE employees,” she said in a statement.

Her memo said the DOE was making the call now on canceling other types of large social gatherings until June 1 to avoid the advance financial commitment and planning required for those events.

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