It’s a rite of passage that high school and college seniors look forward to: walking across the stage in front of family, friends and teachers to receive their diplomas.
That’s not going to happen this year in Minnesota — at least not how it has in the past. Although Gov. Tim Walz announced Wednesday that he’s lifting many restrictions established under the state’s stay-at-home order, gatherings of more than 10 people will not be permitted.
In a May 11 letter to the governor objecting to earlier state guidance on graduations, a group of legislators argued that a one-size-fits-all directive made no sense when there are such different COVID-19 circumstances in different parts of the state. They believe local officials know what can work best in their own communities.
But in our view, at the very least for the traditional commencement months of May and June, Minnesota schools should recognize that public health is at stake. Many school districts already have made the difficult decision to cancel traditional ceremonies.
State guidelines include recommendations on how to safely hold alternative events such as car parades or parking lot ceremonies. Walz and the Education Department made what the governor called the “heartbreaking” decision on traditional ceremonies in consultation with other state agencies and reached a conclusion that rightly prioritizes public health.
The top recommendation is for schools to hold a ceremony that can be conducted remotely and ensure attendees do not need to leave their homes. The guidelines do not allow for a gymnasium or football field gathering.
“The safety and well-being of our students, their families and school staff will always be our top priority. … Students who have reached this graduation milestone deserve to have their achievements celebrated and it breaks our heart that a traditional in-person ceremony is not safe this year,” the Education Department said in a statement to an editorial writer. “Adhering to [the guidelines] is how we will both celebrate our students and move safely through this unprecedented time together.”
The statement also said that contrary to some rumors, violations of the guidelines will not result in withholding state school funding. The only “consequence of holding an in-person ceremony is public health and the spread of this virus,” the department said.
To their credit, some Minnesota schools and their counterparts around the country have already designed safe, creative ways to acknowledge the class of 2020. Some have opted to hold a vehicle parade through the school community, led by local police and fire departments. Others plan to allow each senior to walk across a stage and receive a diploma — and videos of those individual events will be spliced together for a ceremony keepsake video.
And on Friday, #Graduation2020 will be broadcast on Facebook and Instagram to celebrate grads across the nation. The commencement address will be given by Oprah Winfrey, and other celebrities will offer words of wisdom for graduating students.
Minnesota’s three largest school districts — Anoka-Hennepin, St. Paul and Minneapolis — will honor their nearly 10,000 graduates with virtual ceremonies. Officials from the districts rightly understand how difficult — and risky — it would be to hold any kind of public event involving all students and still live up to social-distancing guidelines.
So here’s to Minnesota classes of 2020 — and to the various ways to celebrate their accomplishments while protecting public safety.