Local school superintendents are working to coordinate graduation plans in an ever-changing planning environment, incorporating just released guidance from the Minnesota Department of Education.

Minnesota banned large-scale high school graduation ceremonies on Friday morning to limit the spread of the coronavirus, and encouraged schools to hold online ceremonies instead.

The Minnesota Department of Education issued guidance saying indoor graduations and ceremonies held outside in stadiums and on football fields are not permitted.

Such gathering are not considered safe at any size, it said.

"We know how much students in the class of 2020 have sacrificed this year, and how disappointing it is not to participate in the milestones or traditions they had imagined," a guidance document stated.

The guidelines were made with public health protection in mind, and adhering to them is how school districts should both celebrate our students and move safely through COVID-19 challenge together.

While some schools have discussed delaying graduation ceremonies until later to allow for more traditional events, the department said it can't offer a timeline for when public health guidance will be changed to allow large gatherings.

The guidance also lists steps for schools to take if they decide to host celebrations such as car parades or parking lot ceremonies.

It said each household should be in a separate car, attendees should stay in their cars and events should be brief.

Princeton High School and district staff have started planning and preparation for a production of a virtual ceremony, Princeton Superintendent Ben Barton told the Union-Times Friday morning.

“We needed to wait and see the guidance from the Minnesota Department of Education to see if there was anything additional we could do to enhance the virtual ceremony or supplement,” Barton said.

Barton said he had completed a first read of the MDE guidance document that was released Friday morning, and confirmed there was a section at the end of the document that addressed scheduling drive-through or vehicle-based graduation ceremonies.

 “Looking at that language, MDE was strongly discouraging that,” he said. “We have not determined if we will be doing anything in addition to the virtual ceremony.”

According to Barton, the guidance document released Friday by the Minnesota Department of Education provided clear justification for not doing a gym-based or football stadium-based ceremony. 

“We had been receiving quite a bit of strong input from people who wanted to pressure us into doing some kind of ceremony or gathering,” Barton said. “A lot of people had the popular opinion we could do it on the football field with 6 feet of social distancing. Everyone had good intentions, but we knew that would not be in the guidance that we received. If anything, this is going to help reinforce that we are going to have to do a virtual ceremony. We are not going to be able to do a large graduation gathering.”

Barton said parents and Class of 2020 graduates will be contacted early next week regarding the virtual ceremony in Princeton.

“Principal Barbara Muckenhirn has been communicating with parents on a regular basis. We’ve been letting parents know the latest, and asking them to please be patient.”

Regarding an actual graduation date, Barton said Princeton District 477 is still scheduled to conduct its ceremony on Friday, May 29.

“At this point, I have not had any other discussions that would lead us to choose another date,” he said Friday. “The information that I have now is we will do graduation on May 29. I don’t see any reason why we would not do it on that date.”

Superintendent Tim Truebenbach told the Union-Times Friday morning that a virtual graduation ceremony was the least favorable option for the Milaca district.

He was waiting for two return phone calls to schedule meetings when contacted for the latest information about the district’s grad plan.

“We have a relative plan for graduation, but we are running it by the Minnesota Department of Health and local officials,” Truebenbach said. “We are working to get their stamp of approval. Our ultimate, No. 1 concern is keeping people safe. Right now, we are getting our plan reviewed for proper guidance.”

Early this week, Truebenbach announced that light of the recent extension to Gov. Tim Walz's "Stay at Home" order, the district would be postponing the Milaca High School Graduation Ceremony that was originally scheduled for Friday, May 15. The district’s planning has remained ‘in flux” the last week.

Truebenbach said Tuesday morning that input was gathered from 2020 senior class officers and high school administration in order to coordinate a plan that included the cooperation of school staff, the East Central Minnesota Educational Cable Collaborative, and the city of Milaca. “We are applying the Minnesota Department of Education guidance that was released Friday to our existing plan," he said.

According to Truebenbach, the Milaca district is anticipating a target date for a graduation ceremony that is a still couple of weeks out. “We don’t have that solidified yet, because it’s contingent upon getting feedback from local officials and making sure we are doing things right and our plan is going to fly with the guidance that we’ve been provided,” he said. “We still need to get a stamp of approval.”

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