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CLEVELAND (WJW)– The Ohio Department of Education has directed school districts statewide to hold high school graduation ceremonies virtually instead of in person this year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and restrictions limiting large gatherings.

The Department released a statement to school districts Thursday asking them to honor students in a way that doesn’t pose health risks, noting schools should continue to recognize the importance of restrictions on mass gatherings and events should abide by Ohio’s stay at home order.

“While we understand the significance, tradition and rites of passage many of these events represent, particularly for our seniors, 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 statement said.

The Department said in-person events may lead to negative consequences.

Its statement notes there’s no guarantee large gatherings will be permitted later in the year, and students may be unable to attend delayed events due to other life commitments. It also states that maintaining social distancing would be challenging, especially considering the highly emotional nature of the events.

The Department said districts holding in-person graduation ceremonies put pressure on other schools that have chosen to hold events virtually.

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Shaker Heights High School Senior Samira Smith said she had been looking forward to a graduation ceremony for years.

“I have been dreaming about it since watching my older cousins graduate from school, and I couldn’t wait until I’m that one to walk across the stage,” Smith said.

The Shaker Heights City School District was among the first area schools to officially cancel its commencement ceremony, planned for June 3 at Playhouse Square, and instead hold a virtual ceremony online.

“They want something that makes them feel like their accomplishments mean something,” said parent Lakessa Taylor.

Smith and Taylor were among about a dozen students and parents who protested outside the district administration building Friday, calling the decision abrupt.

Superintendent Dr. David Glasner released a video statement Thursday explaining the decision.

“I want to apologize that we did not better engage all of our stakeholders in this decision,” Glasner said in the statement.

Glasner said the district considered holding commencement at the Shaker Heights High School stadium to allow for more social distancing but decided even that could face cancelation.

“I can’t emphasize enough how much we want to honor our students. We also have to be able to keep everybody safe,” said Shaker Heights High School principal Eric Juli.

Juli said, with the stay at home order still in place and many unknowns about when gatherings may be allowed, the school couldn’t delay a decision about commencement and face being unable to book a company to assist with the virtual ceremony.

He said administrators are open to ideas for the virtual ceremony and will meet with concerned parents, including those who protested Friday.

 “We are open to holding an event honoring our graduates if and when we are allowed to,” Juli said.