Albert Lea graduation moved to July 24

Published 8:33 pm Monday, April 20, 2020

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In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Albert Lea school board voted Monday to move the district’s graduation ceremony to July 24.

What the ceremony will look like — including where it will be held — remains up in the air, depending on guidelines in place at the state and federal levels at that time.

The ceremony had been slated for May 22, and is traditionally in the Albert Lea High School gym.

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Board members said they hoped that by the July date there would be a higher likelihood of being able to have an in-person ceremony as opposed to a virtual ceremony.

“I know it’s important that we have it,” said school board member Ken Petersen, who noted he had heard from several seniors about the importance of the event.

School board member Kim Nelson, whose daughter is a senior at the high school, said after seeing the agenda for the meeting, she sat down with her daughter to discuss the issue.

Nelson said while her daughter said she can get through with not having other events such as prom and the senior dinner dance and then potentially having a virtual baccalaureate ceremony, she would struggle with not having a graduation.

“I feel like there’s no damage in waiting and setting another date,” Nelson said. “I think the resilience of this senior class has been tested enough to maybe afford them that.”

Board member Dennis Dieser said he thinks it is important for students to have the closure of graduation before they move on to their next chapter in life.

Aaron Farris, the student member of the board, said of all the students he has spoken to, they all wanted to do a ceremony in-person instead of a digital one.

Superintendent Mike Funk said if authorities say in July that large gatherings still cannot be held in a gymnasium or a stadium, school leaders are looking at the option of a ceremony in the style of an outdoor drive-in movie theater, where students and their families would be parked in cars in the high school parking lot. Families would stay in their cars, and the ceremony would be broadcast on a local radio station. Students would still be able to walk across a stage and be recognized that way.

Nelson asked if an awards and recognition night was being planned, and high school Principal Mark Grossklaus said they are looking into doing that virtually. More information will be shared when it is available.

Funk estimated there are a total of about 230 or 240 students graduating from Albert Lea High School and the Albert Lea Area Learning Center.

In other action, the board:

• Heard an update from Funk regarding distance learning with the district.

He said the district is fortunate to have great teachers who are stepping up and going the extra mile with distance learning. He also thanked the families of students in the district.

Funk said starting Wednesday and going once a week, teachers will not make any new assignments on Wednesdays, allowing students to catch up on assignments and to allow teachers more planning and collaboration time. He said he hoped this reduced the stress level for some people in the community.

He said the district has provided child care for between 20 and 26 children of essential workers a day and has averaged between 1,700 and 1,800 total breakfasts and lunches. On Friday, the district will start a heated option, where food will be sent home that will need to be heated up before eating.

Funk said the biggest financial hit in recent weeks has been in third-party billing — he anticipated a shortfall in funding from medical assistance for about $300,000 for services that cannot be provided through distance learning technology. Most of this deficit should be able to be offset through reduced costs elsewhere from not having students in buildings and reduced travel for activities and conferences.

The superintendent said he thinks it is unlikely school or spring sports will resume this school year in a traditional format, and summer school programming is also unknown at this point. The district is looking into what will happen to the child care for workers deemed essential after the school year has concluded.

• Approved discontinuing one full-time equivalent administrative dean position and four full-time equivalent special education lead teachers.

The action came at the direction of the school board in February, which directed the administration to make recommendations for reductions in programs and positions. Funk said the board has been concerned about costs in both special education and administration.

The reductions will be permanent, and he said none of the positions directly impact students in the classroom.

• Approved the termination and non-renewal of a group of probationary teachers: Sarah Beck, Heather Benninghoff, Laura Garlow, Camille Osmonson, John Ott, Grace Pfieffer, Lindsay Reisdorfer, Brady Yrjo and Brittni Zuniga.

Funk said the district has up to three years to determine whether to offer a continuing contract to a teacher. This is the time of year that determination is made.

• Approved a memorandum of understanding with the Albert Lea Education Association regarding an early retirement incentive.

• Approved a statement of support for MercyOne Air Med to obtain a license for air ambulance service in Minnesota.

A few of the board members questioned voting on the statement on such short notice after a public statement with the request was submitted by Albert Lea Health Care Coalition President Brad Arends.

Board members Nelson and Dieser also questioned whether it was the appropriate place to discuss the issue with all of the other pressing issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and said they were worried about unintended consequences.

Board member Jill Marin said though she did not agree it with being added to the agenda at the last minute, she did think it was an urgent issue for the area.

Petersen said he felt the community would want the board to vote positively for it and to take action that would help businesses.