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Going out with a bang: Community of Williams prepares to send off graduates

Williams Volunteer Fire Department will provide a community fireworks show May 22 for the Williams High School graduates. On May 29, WHS will host a limited outdoor ceremony for the 2020 graduates.  (Wendy Howell/photo and graphic)

Williams Volunteer Fire Department will provide a community fireworks show May 22 for the Williams High School graduates. On May 29, WHS will host a limited outdoor ceremony for the 2020 graduates. (Wendy Howell/photo and graphic)

WILLIAMS, Ariz. —The town of Williams may be small, but it knows how to go big when it comes to celebrating its youth. On May 22, the town’s 53 graduating high school seniors will be honored with a fireworks show followed by an outdoor invite-only graduation ceremony the following weekend.

Although it won’t be the first time the Williams High School class has held an outdoor ceremony, it is the first time the school has had to work through graduation planning amidst a global pandemic. The high school was closed and students sent home mid-March following orders from Gov. Doug Ducey in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

After consulting with the Williams Unified School District Governing Board, administrators decided to allow a fireworks show May 22 at 8:30 p.m. and hold an outdoor graduation ceremony on the high school football field May 29 at 7 p.m.

Be there: Williams Fire Department fireworks show

What: WFD is honoring the WHS Class of 2020 and the Vikings state football champions with a fireworks show.

When: May 22 at 8:30 p.m

Where: Outside the Williams High School baseball field (park along roadways).

Who: Students, families and community members. Graduating seniors will be the only ones allowed on the field.

As each week presented new guidelines for communities to follow in response to the outbreak, schools across the country have grappled with how to not only finish the school year, but also how to honor graduating classes.

With the expiration of Ducey’s stay-at-home order, WUSD administrators and governing board members felt that more graduation ceremony options were available for the district.

A committee of teachers and administrators spoke with students and convened several times over the past few weeks to discuss scenarios for graduation. These ideas included a parade, a drive-up style ceremony, a virtual graduation, a traditional ceremony and/or delaying the event until fall.

“They (students) told me that postponing graduation is just not a good idea,” said WUSD Superintendent Rick Honsinger. “They’re going to move on, graduation is a point where seniors transfer into adulthood and they’re going to do that. To come back and have a ceremony in the fall just isn’t a reality for them.”

Honsinger also pointed out that Williams has a very low number of COVID-19 positive cases, which won’t be any lower in the fall.

“Right now in this zip code, we are still in that 1-5 category that have this COVID-19 disease,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to get any better than that — not for the next several years. We aren’t going to be in a better scenario in the fall.”

The May 22 fireworks show will be hosted by Williams Fire Department on the Williams High School baseball field. Seniors will be the only ones allowed on the field to maintain social distancing. Beginning at 8:20 p.m., the Williams High School football field will be lit for 20 minutes and then the fire department will release a multi-shot display to honor the 2019 Williams Vikings football champions.

After the multi-shot display, senior’s names will be read and the fire department will shoot 14 multi-shot cakes as the finale.

“For the public that would like to watch, we encourage them to park around the baseball field fence and the field behind the softball field,” said Williams Fire Chief Kevin Schulte.

Schulte said the fire department also asks the public to maintain physical distancing while outside watching the fireworks, and to not sit in the bleachers, block driveways or roadways and not enter the baseball field.

“As pets may be scared of the fireworks, we encourage pet owners to bring their animals indoors to a secure location and turn on the TV or radio to reduce the noise from the fireworks,” Schulte said.

For the May 29 graduation ceremony, WUSD has determined the large football field will allow administrators to provide adequate social distancing of students and families. Each student will be allowed to invite a select number of family members who will be given assigned seating on the field. Community members will not be allowed into the ceremony, but can watch a recorded version online.

“We’re looking at support from WPD (Williams Police Department) with parking, attendance and crowd control,” said Williams High School Principal Eric Evans. “And setting groups up by household with limited attendance and seating.”

The program will include the traditional slide-show and speeches from the valedictorians, salutatorians and historians. Administrators plan to limit the length of the ceremony.

“We want to keep it short and sweet and safe,” Evans said. “We want to keep it as minimal as we can without taking away from the important parts and pieces of the ceremony.”

Evans said detailed planning is continuing for the ceremony as committee members reach out to families. He said the district is focused on providing a memorable event while also keeping within CDC guidelines.

Students will be spaced at least six feet apart and the parking lot at WHS will be blocked to encourage limited interaction between attendees. He said this year’s ceremony is focused on the students and immediate family.

“This is not a ceremony to invite everybody and bring everyone in front out of town,” he said. “Williams doesn’t need that at this time. Unfortunately we wish we could say otherwise, but under the current conditions and guidelines it’s important for us to remember to follow protocol.”

Evans wanted to remind families that attending the ceremony is not a requirement for graduating.

“It is completely voluntary and optional,” he said. “It has no bearing whatsoever on graduation status.”

The school plans to continue to celebrate the seniors into the summer by placing their photos on light poles throughout the downtown area.

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