Unofficial Graduation Ceremony Held for 7 Students Excluded due to Covid

Most people will tell you that Canby High School held two graduations for the Class of 2021 on Friday night — but the truth is there were actually three.

After the two “main events” at 6 and 8 p.m. at Cougar Stadium, a third, much smaller and unsanctioned event was held for seven senior boys who met all the qualifications to graduate but were denied the chance to walk with their classmates due to Covid-19 protocols.

The seven — Josh Haynes, Tyler Gile, Kyle Sandner, Damien Santiago Cruz, Tommy Tallen, Jackson Valdrow and Rylan Wymer — were prohibited from school facilities and activities after being exposed to a student who later tested positive for Covid-19.

The student had attended a Canby basketball game Thursday night, and photos of the crowd identified the seven boys who had been in close proximity.

But angry parents say the administration’s decision was unfair, unscientific and completely illogical.

For one thing, the student had also attended graduation rehearsal earlier Thursday and participated in other rites of passage — like leaving a handprint on the designated Class of 2021 hall — which they say would have exposed more than just the seven teens who were excluded.

Also, Sandner has a twin brother, Kade, who was allowed to walk with their classmates.

“We show up at the graduation: One twin’s on the blacklist and one gets to go through, so where’s the science in that?” mother Shawnda Wright asked. “They sleep in the same room. None of this makes any sense.”

The high school had begun calling parents of the affected students four hours before the ceremony to give them the bad news, and word spread fast. Wright said she declined to answer the call, and instead went straight to campus to confront administrators face-to-face.

It was a chaotic scene Wright described Friday night as the stadium slowly filled with parents, family members and friends — and other students lined up nearby to start the processional.

“Kade comes out, crying, saying they’re not letting Kyle in,” Wright recalled. “They humiliated Kyle in front of all his classmates. I couldn’t believe what was happening. They came into this world together, they went through school together, and now they don’t get to graduate together?”

Wright said she and the other parents tried to offer various compromises that would have allowed the boys to participate — such as wearing masks or sitting in the back, far from removed from other classmates — but to no avail.

Administrators could not be reached for comment Sunday. But they appeared to have been following the strict quarantine protocols directed by Clackamas County Public Health, which requires anyone in close contact with a confirmed positive case to remove themselves from classes and any school-sanctioned events for 14 days.

These protocols were established were implemented before the return to in-person learning in March and April and do not appear to offer any exceptions for special events, including graduation scenarios.

And, though it may seem nonsensical, the Oregon Department of Education guidelines do have specific guidance that appears to apply for cases such as the Sandner twins: saying that only the infected person (call them “Person A”) and any close contacts (“Group B”) need to quarantine — and not folks who came into contact with Group B but had no direct exposure to Person A.

Graphic from “Planning for COVID-19 Scenarios in Schools,” from the Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority.

For Wright and the other parents, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, a bubbling over of months of frustration the pandemic and its related restrictions have brought, particularly for public school students and families.

“Kyle was crying at that point, and I told them, ‘Look at him,'” recalled Wright, who lives in Idaho and made the six-hour drive to watch the ceremony. “This is what our children have been going through all year; this is what the parents have to deal with at home, and enough is enough.

“You guys can’t continue to do this to these kids. They’ve been going to Canby for 13 years, and in four hours, you have just destroyed it.”

Wright said Canby police were on hand to ensure the ceremony was not disrupted, with one officer assigned to her.

“He was very cordial, very nice,” she said. “I told him, ‘Don’t worry — I’m not going to ruin it for these kids like they’ve ruined it for the others.'”

Afterward, a staff member turned the stadium lights off to signal the end of the ceremony — then switched them back on 20 minutes later. A handful of Canby School District employees, along with their parents and about 30 classmates, had stayed behind to give the boys a small taste of the pomp and circumstance.

Two Canby School Board members, Dawn Depner and Stefani Carlson, also stayed late to congratulate the boys as they strode across the stage around 9:30 p.m.

“We had a stand-up educator who handed them their diplomas,” said Depner, who made clear in a phone interview that she was speaking only for herself. “Stef and I shook their hands and tried to give them the exact same experience that they missed out on with all their friends.

“I just felt like it was the good right thing to do,” she continued. “These kids worked really hard for their graduation. They did all the right things, and they’ve been through so much with Covid. They deserved to walk. In my eyes, there were three graduations that night, and I’m glad that there were.”

Wright applauded the efforts of the board members and staff who stayed, but remains furious with district administration.

“We, the parents, made this happen,” she said. “We stood up and said, ‘No, this is not right for you to take this away from them four hours before they graduate.’ made the best of a shitty situation, and we did it for those seven kids.”

She said is considering legal action and has consulted with an attorney, local lawyer Tyler Smith, whose wife, Sherry Smith, was elected to the school board in May and who runs a local Facebook group, Open Canby Schools, that has long been critical of the district’s approach to the pandemic.

Tyler Smith did not respond to a request for comment Sunday.

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