South-Western City Schools has formed a committee that includes senior student leaders from the district's four high schools to review options and make a recommendation regarding a potential plan for holding revamped high school graduation ceremonies.

The committee will use revised guidelines issued April 29 by the Ohio Department of Education, South-Western's executive director of communications Sandy Nekoloff said.

The district notified seniors and their families of the new guidelines and the plan to create the committee April 30.

It had notified students April 24 it would hold a virtual ceremony May 30, the original scheduled date for the traditional ceremonies.

"Our plans are and will be based on guidance from the appropriate agencies," Nekoloff said. "The health, safety and welfare of our students and staff is always our top priority. The original guidance was very clear regarding the expectations for local school districts. When health officials opened the restrictions and guidance to provide more acceptable, safe options, we were more than willing to reconsider this topic."

The principals of Central Crossing, Franklin Heights, Grove City and Westland high schools chose the senior leaders for the committee, she said.

The committee will include the high school principals, executive director of secondary education Erik Shuey, a PTA parent (also chosen by the high school principals) and district officials, Nekoloff said.

"The work group is already in place and has had its first preliminary meeting to begin working on the issues," she said.

The goal is for the recommendations to be developed and submitted to Superintendent Bill Wise no later than May 12, Nekoloff said.

The virtual ceremony plan was based on the ODE's original guidelines issued April 23, which directed that schools "should hold events virtually rather than conducting in-person events of this type, and record these events whenever possible and practicable. Congregate graduation ceremonies should not be held."

The revised guidelines from the ODE continue to "strongly recommend" virtual graduation ceremonies as the safest approach "to maximize the safety and health of everyone involved."

But the ODE's new statement acknowledges that options for structured and controlled in-person graduation ceremonies are available "and can be successfully implemented while keeping safe practices in mind."

Those options include drive-thru graduations or single-family in-person graduation events.

The ODE is directing school districts that their planning for structured or in-person graduation ceremonies should involve the local health departments and law-enforcement partners.

On April 30, Franklin County Public Health sent a message to Franklin County school superintendents, indicating it still "strongly recommends" that only virtual graduation ceremonies be held.

"We are aware other options, such as drive-in ceremonies or events with 10 or fewer people at a time, are acceptable by the state. However, Franklin County Public Health strongly discourages those options," the notice states.

South-Western's decision to create the committee follows an online petition drive launched April 24 by Grove City High School senior Natalia Figueroa Leal after she and other seniors received messages from their principals announcing the virtual ceremony plan.

The petition and accompanying statement asked district officials to consider other options.

The students collected 1,900 signatures in the first 48 hours of their drive and 2,870 by May 1.

"We're really excited and happy that this is going forward and we may be able to have a ceremony of some kind," Figueroa Leal said May 1. "Both the department of education and the department of health are now agreeing that there are other options that can be safely done, so there are other options we can do."

The petition was designed to send a message that a graduation ceremony is important to seniors "and that the community really cares about this," she said.

"We've worked hard for 12 years to get to this point. Graduation is an important milestone for us," Figueroa Leal said in an interview conducted April 28 before the ODE's new guidelines were issued.

"I felt like this decision was being made without our voices being heard," Figueroa Leal said.

Even ahead of the ODE's updated guidelines, other districts and schools in Ohio had begun making alternative plans for graduation or rescheduled their events to a later date, she said.

Westerville City School District's high schools had rescheduled their ceremonies from May 23 to June 27, with the hope that a public event could be held later, said Grove City High School senior class president Olivia Norbut, who was one of several South-Western senior student leaders who helped Figueroa Leal with her petition drive.

"I don't know why we couldn't wait and try to hold the graduation ceremony later in the summer," Norbut said. "Why not prepare for the best and not just capitulate and throw in the towel.

"The graduation ceremony is something we've worked hard for and deserve to have," she said. "It brings a sense of closure and a chance for our class to gather one more time together before we separate for the next stage of our lives."

One option South-Western could consider has been adopted by the Perrysburg Schools, Figueroa Leal said.

On May 17, the original date scheduled for graduation, Perrysburg seniors and their immediate family members will be invited at an appointed time to the high school commons, where they will gather while practicing social distance.

Each senior will be called to the auditorium and, while family members sit in the audience, will walk across the stage in cap and gown and receive a diploma.

The senior and his or her family members then will leave the auditorium together, and the next student will be called in to receive a diploma. A videographer will film each student's moment and edit footage to create a virtual ceremony that will be shared.

"That's a plan that would at least give us a chance to actually receive our diploma in front of our family members," Figueroa Leal said. "Some students have watched their older siblings or friends have the same experience. It's something I've been looking forward to for a long time."