The Milaca School Board approved a graduation plan Monday night for the Class of 2020 that includes a ceremony in the school complex’s parking lot.
Superintendent Tim Truebenbach and Principal Damian Patnode presented the graduation ceremony recommendation, which received a unanimous vote.
“We are looking at Friday, May 29,” Patnode told the board Monday night. “That’s a popular day, and time-wise, that would be two weeks after our original date. We’ve also talked about Monday, June, 1, or another day that week. Whatever graduation date we go with, we would like a weather contingency.”
Senior parents were notified Tuesday evening via social media that the district had selected May 29 as the graduation date. The ceremony is scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m. Senior parents were instructed to check their emails for more information.
Truebenbach said with the unprecedented situation the district is facing in 2020 in responding to the COVID-19 crisis, school officials wanted to recreate the traditional graduation program and experience as much as possible.
Milaca’s parking lot graduation ceremony plan will allow each graduate a single vehicle; graduate in question must be a passenger in that vehicle. Any other attendees in the vehicle must be immediate family from the same household.
The district will set up a stage up outside.
Vehicles will park in the front lot with trucks and large SUVs being parked in the back row.
School officials will stagger park vehicles, so no one will have someone parked directly in front of them.
Vehicles should keep their windows rolled up throughout the program.
The East Central Minnesota Educational Cable Cooperative (ECMECC), a consortium of 13 school districts and a technical college utilizing two-way interactive television, will provide a social media live stream of graduation and a recording. The program will be aired over radio through an FM transmitter.
Using social distancing throughout the graduation program, the Class of 2020 will have speeches from students and faculty, and students will be allowed to cross the stage to receive their diploma, Truebenbach explained.
To accomplish this, the district will alphabetically place the graduates into groups of five. All students will remain in their vehicle until their group is called to line up.
Staff will be spaced in the parking lot to ensure social distancing is followed.
No contact can be made between graduates, who will line up on the sidewalk next to the stage a minimum of 10 feet apart, Truebenbach explained.
Faculty will call the graduate’s name and as they cross the stage they will pick up their diploma cover, stop for a picture and exit the stage and head back to their vehicle. Diplomas and awards will be mailed to graduates after the ceremony.
A police escort will lead a senior class parade on the regular Milaca parade route.
Truebenbach handed the board presentation over to Patnode, who provided background details about the planning effort for the proposed ceremony.
Patnode said the plan under consideration by the school board had not changed drastically from information presented in the past weeks. Minor changes were based on ongoing conversations with key players at the state and local level.
“We were waiting for the Minnesota Department of Education to give us guidance on graduation and commencement activities, and we got that May 8,” Patnode said.
Minnesota Commissioner of Education Mary Cathryn Ricker was aware of the district’s plan, Patnode said, adding MDE’s guidance was a good fit.
The district met May 11 with Mille Lacs County Public Health officials Beth Crook, director of community and veteran services, and Kay Nastrom, public health nurse.
“After that meeting, we were not feeling so great about our plan,” Patnode said, explaining that health officials had concerns that were based upon Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order that was in place at the time as well as Centers for Disease Control COVID-19 recommendations.
“They could not support our plan at that point,” Patnode said. “We agreed to meet again on Friday, May 15.”
According to Patnode, that date was chosen because school officials were anticipating Walz’s additional guidance earlier that week, including an update on the status of the state’s COVID-19 peacetime emergency, set to expire May 13.
Over the course of that week, Patnode said he and Truebenbach had numerous conversations regarding the district’s plan. The duo kept searching for ways to modify the plan to work through issues expressed by Mille Lacs County Health.
“We also reached out to Princeton Insurance, the district’s insurance agent, to review liability, we ran this by Maggie Wallner with Kennedy & Graven,” Patnode said, referring to the district’s legal counsel. Patnode reported that Truebenbach had shared written correspondence regarding graduation with the school board.
Patnode reported another meeting took place May 15 with Mille Lacs County Public Health.
“Mr. Truebenbach and I expected a complete shutdown regarding our plan, and we were both shocked when those officials said based upon the change in the stay-at-home order and the governor’s guidance, they said they could support us,” he said.
A key element in the district’s revised graduation plan included going from 10 students out of their vehicle at a time to five students, Patnode explained. Patnode said Monday night that finalizing the date of the parking lot graduation ceremony was still dependent on live-streaming scheduling with ECMECC and a still photographer.
Another key detail was checking into the availability of protective masks for students and staff at the event, Patnode said.
Truebenbach told the school board that there would be no traditional, physical handing out of diplomas on stage.
“We are asking the Class of 2020 to wear those masks when they are outside of their vehicles,” Patnode said. “When the graduation speakers are speaking and when students are having their pictures taken, they can remove their masks.”
Additionally, there will be no mortarboard tossing by the Milaca Class of 2020.
“This plan is only going to work if everyone follows the guidelines,” he said. “That’s imperative. We are really doing our best in this environment to do what we can for our students.”