Westonka graduation 2020 - caps in the air.JPG

Last year’s Westonka graduates were socially distanced on Haddorff Field as they awaited their diplomas. This year’ commencement, while still to be held outside, comes with no social distancing requirements and no limitations on the number of guest that graduates can invite. The district is still looking to provide some socially distanced seating for guests, and masks will still be required despite Gov. Tim Walz’s ending the statewide mask mandate on May 14. (2020 commencement photos courtesy of Westonka Schools)

On June 2, tassled caps will rain down once more on the grounds of Haddorff Field.

Westonka announced earlier this month that commencement would take place in person as an outdoor ceremony. June 3 and 4 are backup days should actual rain threaten to pour down as well.

“We’re in a really good spot,” said Mark McIlmoyle, principal at Mound Westonka High School. Last year, “There was a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’ and then you’d get to about a week out and get new recommendations. This year it’s been a lot more smooth.”

Administration had expected some constraints around graduation this year, and students were originally restricted to inviting just two guests, each of them assigned a seat on the field.

But things “have opened up and opened up and opened up,” said McIlmoyle, adding that this year’s commencement would look very much like any other year’s, just outside. “It’s been really freeing,” he said.

Following Gov. Tim Walz’s original three-step timeline for ending COVID restrictions, the district immediately dropped the limit on guests and the assigned seating. Attendance caps for outdoor events ended May 7, as did an outdoor masking mandate except for events with 500 or more people.

Walz then announced one week later that the statewide masking mandate, both for indoors and outdoors, would end May 14 for those who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Following that announcement, officials for Westonka made the decision to still require that masks be worn by all graduates and guests at commencement.

“Everybody’s in a different place,” said McIlmoyle. “There are going to be people just in two weeks’ time that are going to feel very different about mask wearing or not mask wearing and we’ve got to be sensitive to that.”

McIlmoyle said that the details of other COVID accommodations were still be worked out, like how to configure seating. With no requirement to socially distance guests, the district was still looking to provide some kind distanced seating with the recognition that not everybody would be “100 percent comfortable in that space because it will be the first event that they’ve experienced that’s been ‘back to normal,’” he said.

All graduates and guests are being sent COVID-19 self-screening questions prior to the event, and officials are asking that those who feel unwell or who have been directed to quarantine not attend and catch the livestream instead.

END OF YEAR AND LOOKING AHEAD

Graduation on June 2, the traditional senior party to follow and the junior and senior prom already past—the fun parts are picking up, but the day-to-day picture at Westonka and other districts is still holding steady with masks and indoor distancing requirements in place through the end of the school year.

Per Walz’s May 6 announcement, all public school districts in Minnesota must continue with their Safe Learning plans through June 7. At Westonka, that includes maintaining its indoor mask requirement for students and staff regardless of vaccination status. Westonka did, however, lift the mask requirement for recess and outdoor activities that take place during the school day. Those using the activities center will also be able to forgo the mask if they are fully vaccinated.

“We’re still behind a screen,” said McIlmoyle. But the “noise” of education is starting to come back, and it’s something that he said has been wanting during those periods of distance learning.

“Learning’s social,” he said. “The mask is still there, but that good noise in the cafeterias, in the hallways and on the fields—it’s starting to come back. And as an educator, it’s energizing. An empty classroom is eerie.”

School officials have now begun their planning for the 2021-2022 school year. Some in leadership were scheduled to meet end of last week to go over results of a survey that had polled staff on what worked during the past year and what didn’t and so what might be kept going forward, post-pandemic.

The school board will also approve by end of next month an adopted budget for the coming year. Already, much of the $250,000 that the district had committed to in budget cuts for next year have been sorted out through teacher retirements and a 5 percent across-the-board reduction in the supply budget.

Westonka is also looking at how it might boost its student support services and how it might better serve a student body whose demographics have begun to change. The district received grant money earlier this spring for a self-initiated review of its current MTSS (Multi-Tiered Systems of Support), and administration is currently engaged in creating some kind of “Diversity & Inclusion” focus for next year.

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