Minn. education officials urge virtual ceremonies for graduating seniors

Traditional gatherings on football fields or in gymnasiums will not be allowed

Diamond Syaz walks to her seat at commencement.
Diamond Syas walks out on to the floor of Mariucci Arena past choir members before finding her seat during graduation commencement in 2016. State officials are allowing graduation ceremonies to happen this year, as long as they’re remote or virtual. 
Evan Frost | MPR News

State officials are recommending that graduating seniors stay home to celebrate their rites of passage.

Officials with the Minnesota Department of Health joined state education commissioners for K-12 and higher ed Friday morning to announce guidelines encouraging schools, colleges and universities to host virtual graduation ceremonies for the class of 2020. 

The guidelines said schools are not allowed to host the large, in-person gatherings that traditionally have been held on football fields or in stadiums. Students, parents and staff were still told to stay home as possible, and that indoor ceremonies are prohibited.

Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said her department’s public health decisions were made with guidance from MDH. 

“Right now, we are definitely saying that the safest way to observe graduation and commencement is for everyone to stay home and to create a virtual ceremony for everyone with equity and access in mind,” Ricker said.

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Events held outside the home — such as car parades or parking lot ceremonies — are not recommended by state officials, but they did offer guidelines if schools decided to go that route: Participants can’t walk to the ceremony or participate outside of their vehicles. Windows need to be rolled up if parked next to another vehicle, or parked six feet apart if windows are rolled down. Events must also be brief, and no objects can be passed physically between households. 

‘The markings of adulthood’

Despite seniors having already missed other events that traditionally marked the end of their high school experience such as prom and class trips, Walz —  a former teacher in Mankato — said Thursday he wanted to try to make sure that the milestone of completing their studies was not overlooked.

“Rites of passages are really important,” he said. “We don’t do a lot of them in our society, but a graduation and a graduation party is one of the markings of adulthood, and that you have now entered another level.”

Susan Klammer, MDH epidemiologist and COVID-19 liaison for schools, also acknowledged it was too soon to say when schools could start looking at rescheduling some of the traditional events honoring seniors, including prom and other types of celebrations. Some had plans to host those events later this summer.

“It’s so unprecedented and so unpredictable that we really don’t know where we’re going to be even in a couple months and when we’ll be able to offer that kind of guidance,” Klammer said. 

Schools statewide have been  taking steps to ensure that their seniors at least have a ceremony to celebrate their accomplishments. The Minneapolis Public Schools district is going virtual. Some colleges like Winona State University in southeast Minnesota are also planning to host virtual ceremonies via Zoom or other services.

Commissioner Dennis Olson of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education said that several universities had mailed out tassels and diploma holders or degrees, as well as mortar boards for students to partake in virtual ceremonies and for posting photos onto Instagram or Facebook. The University of Minnesota plans for a virtual event on June 16. 

“We know how disappointing this is for all of our graduates, both high school and college,” Olson said. “But we know that they’ve worked a long time for this day and they’ve overcome a lot of obstacles. …While the celebrations may be smaller than they had originally pictured or envisioned, I hope that each one of our students take pride in their accomplishments.”

Republican lawmakers respond

In a joint statement, several GOP state legislators criticized the new guidelines, noting that Walz’s peacetime emergency powers expire on May 13 and the stay-at-home order expires at midnight on May 17.

“It is incredibly disappointing that the administration took this unilateral action with no warning and no flexibility for schools that are able to hold their ceremonies safely,” said Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton. “This one-size-hurts-all approach completely ignores the thoughtful deliberations and plans already in place with local school leaders.”

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said  the guidelines did not take into account plans that may have been submitted to MDE from individual school districts such as spacing on football fields or using a drive-in movie theater as a venue. 

“Let the kids throw their graduation caps,” Kresha said. “We need to celebrate the future. We urge MDE to rescind these guidelines and talk to local school officials. It is time we all shoulder the work of decision making and planning for reopening our state.”

A day before Friday’s press conference, Mayo High School in Rochester announced plans to host a multi-day ceremony where graduates would be filmed walking across the stage, receiving their diploma from their principal, and then walking off all while wearing their caps and gowns. 

The district said it would only allow for 30 seniors at the event at a time, and two guests per student. Once filming finished, the footage would be edited together to make one complete commencement video.

MPR News reached out to Rochester Public Schools on Thursday and has not received a response. 

Friday’s announcement may change those plans. Klammer said that the state hasn’t gone through each individual plan for each district that requested assistance, but was willing to offer guidance “as they’re thinking about how their plans and their work can fit into the parameters that we’ve offered today.”

“We would certainly discourage that they do anything different that would be outside of the public health guidance,” she said. “We really need to do all we can to stay home, to practice that social distancing and to help keep everyone that we can safe.”