Burnsville will have single graduation ceremony

Miller, Alt criticize superintendent’s decision

Burnsville High School will have a single outdoor graduation ceremony instead of the two ceremonies District 191 officials had been planning to establish social distancing.

Two School Board members criticized the decision by Superintendent Theresa Battle, announced at the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage board’s May 13 meeting. Attendance at the ceremony won’t be limited, but face masks will be required of everyone in accordance with what have been state guidelines, she said.

“All graduates will participate in a single ceremony so they can graduate with their friends and classmates, with that ceremony scheduled for 6 p.m. on Friday, June 11, at Pates Stadium,” Battle said.

One board member praised her decision.

“As a friend of several seniors this year,” said Board Member and parent Scott Hume, “I’m sure I can speak for them when I say thank you for the changes in the graduation. I think there will be many happy families in our community as a result of this change, and I’m grateful that we’ve been able to do all we’ve been able to do to get to this point where we’re able to do this.”

Board Member Abigail Alt acknowledged it’s Battle’s call under authority the board gave her for managing pandemic response. But COVID-19 case data and test positivity rates advise against a single ceremony, “given all the caution that we’ve exercised this year, first and foremost with the rich diversity that lives in our schools and protecting families who are hit harder by illness,” Alt said.

While graduates deserve their celebration, vulnerable populations “also deserve thoughtful protection,” Alt said.

“But I’m sure that your shoulders are broad enough to handle whatever repercussions might happen as a result of this large event,” she told Battle.

Battle cited Gov. Tim Walz’s lifting of business and social-gathering restrictions, effective May 28, in her decision to allow a “traditional graduation ceremony for the Class of 2021.” Graduates will be spread out on the field, and “social distancing will be encouraged as much as possible among attendees,” the superintendent said.

The two back-to-back ceremonies had been tentatively planned for June 11 also.

Alt asked Battle what advice the district’s COVID-19 advisory committee gave her on graduation. The committee — of parent, school health staff, administration and teacher representatives, as well as the School Board chair and vice chair — has advised Battle on the hybrid, in-person and virtual learning models the district has used during the pandemic.

“It varied,” Battle said, suggesting that parents and students have different ideas about whether to hold two ceremonies or one.

There was discussion on the committee that because seniors couldn’t be more fully reunited in school, a single graduation ceremony “might be a reward for them to be together as one,” Battle said.

Officials had hoped in April to go from two days of in-school learning to four for middle and high school students. Because of case numbers at the time, including a rise in confirmed infections among school-age children that idea was quashed, Battle announced April 22.

“So the committee’s position was that it’s better to reward the students than exercise caution?” Alt asked.

“No,” Battle responded. “I wouldn’t say there was consensus.”

Board Chair Eric Miller challenged her statement.

“Dr. Battle, I am part of that advisory committee that meets on Fridays,” he said. “I would not necessarily agree with the assessment that we were mixed about it. We actually were pretty adamant that we felt that we should stick to the two events, and opening it up full to everybody is concerning. But as Director Alt indicated, this is your decision to make.”

A masking requirement for the ceremony isn’t reassuring, Miller said.

“I don’t have any idea how we’re going to enforce that,” he said. “If we have 200-some parents show up and they choose not to wear masks, we have no recourse to have any say in that, essentially.”

Walz announced May 13 he would lift his statewide mask mandate the following day. Addressing the board shortly after the announcement, Assistant Superintendent Brian Gersich said officials had been proceeding with plans to require masks at graduation because the state has required them for gatherings of more than 500 people.

District officials would digest Walz’s new mask announcement, Gersich said.

With 550 chairs on the field for graduates, spacing between them will be about three or four feet, he said.

Officials are working on measures to discourage congregating at the ceremony, which creates the potential of mixing unvaccinated people, he said.

If weather doesn’t permit a June 11 ceremony, it will be moved to Saturday, June 12, Battle said. If that one is rained out, it will be moved into the gym on Saturday, attendance will be limited and each graduate will get “a number of tickets,” she said.

Burnsville Alternative High School’s ceremony is planned for June 10 at 5 p.m. outside the school, with a June 11 rain date, Battle said.

The BEST transition program’s graduation is set for June 8 at 6 p.m. in the high school’s Mraz Center, she said. The District’s School for Adults will hold a virtual honors night June 11, she said.

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