Top recommendation for graduation ceremonies: Virtual celebrations

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Friday, Minnesota state leaders provided guidance for schools on conducting graduation ceremonies amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

A top recommendation in guidelines released Friday by the Minnesota Department of Education, Office of Higher Education and Minnesota Department of Health, was for schools to hold remote ceremonies that ensure attendees wouldn't need to leave their homes.

The guidance also includes considerations for celebrations outside of the home, such as vehicle parades or parking lot ceremonies.

In the guidelines, state officials said gatherings outside in stadiums or football fields as well as in-person social gatherings "are not considered safe at any size and will not be permitted." Similarly, indoor ceremonies will not be allowed.

"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," state leaders said in the guidelines. "These guidelines were made with public health protection in mind, and adhering to them is how we will both celebrate our students and move safely through this challenge together."

In the midst of the pandemic, graduation will now look different for many students throughout the state this year.

Many schools had begun discussing various ideas for how to honor the Class of 2020 amid the pandemic, with several moving back possible ceremony dates or offering virtual options.

These discussions occurred prior to the release of the state's recommendations.

Anoka-Hennepin was planning in-person, outdoor ceremonies at its six high schools. Attendees would be scaled back to the graduate and two guests per graduate. As of Friday, the superintendent told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS, the district is considering virtual options.

"Early on, I had a lot of communications from families saying, 'We really want an in-person ceremony.' The last few days, increasingly, I've had parents communicate about concerns about safety for their students or elderly relatives," Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent David Law said.

"I have a senior at my house, I see firsthand how it impacts students … it's not how I envisioned," Law added. "I had dreamed of shaking his hand upon graduation at one of our sites. It's our reality, I hate that it's a reality but we are going to do the best we can to celebrate our students."

Meanwhile, St. Paul and Minneapolis public schools were considering virtual graduations that would include speakers and other typical parts of the graduation ceremony. St. Paul school officials stated the aim for their virtual graduations is to have them feel as close to typical graduations as possible. Students will receive caps and gowns next week along with yard signs. MPS said it will air virtual ceremonies in English, Hmong, Somali and Spanish for each school on Facebook Live. Schools are making individual plans to distribute diploma covers, caps, gowns and other logistics to families and students.

Shakopee school officials previously discussed allowing the roughly 600 students to graduate during an outdoor field ceremony that was planned for July 25. As of Friday, school officials were considering alternate options.

In Minnetonka, seniors normally graduate at U.S. Bank Stadium in June. As a precaution, school officials moved the ceremony to July, with another backup date in August. It's unclear if they're considering other options.

Some districts were previously considering drive-up ceremonies, or splitting the senior class into smaller groups and hosting an outdoor event.

"Growing up in a small community, you grow a family with your classmates and without having a graduation it takes the opportunity away to say goodbye to that family of friends," said Reagan Wilson, a senior at Aitkin High School.

Wilson is one of 70 graduating students in the entire district, which is north of the Twin Cities.

The high school had considered a ceremony on their football field with those in attendance socially distanced later this month. Now, the district is planning a possible parade for their graduation ceremony due to the new state guidelines.