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Minnesota essentially bans all large-scale graduation ceremonies

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota essentially banned large-scale high school and college graduation ceremonies for the class of 2020 on Friday to limit the spread of the coronavirus, dashing the spirits of students who had been holding out hope for traditional pomp and circumstance.

The Minnesota Department of Education and the Office of Higher Education issued guidance saying indoor graduations and ceremonies held outside in stadiums and on football fields are not permitted. Such gatherings are not considered safe at any size, it said. The agencies are encouraging schools to hold online events instead.

Education officials announced the decision on a day when Minnesota surpassed 10,000 confirmed coronavirus cases — a figure health officials acknowledge is an undercount because not everyone who has been infected gets tested and many don’t show symptoms. State and public health labs also surpassed 100,000 completed tests.

Minnesota’s death toll from COVID-19 rose by 26 to 534 as of Friday, while the confirmed case count rose by 723 to 10,088. the Minnesota Department of Health reported. The number of patients hospitalized with the virus rose by 38 to 473, with a new high of 198 in intensive care, up 16 from Thursday.

Gov. Tim Walz ordered schools to close in March and to switch to distance learning. He later extended the closure through the school year, forcing students to complete classes from home.

“The class of 2020 persisted in their education through this unprecedented and uncertain time, with a school experience that was difficult to navigate for all of us,” Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said in a conference call with reporters.

The blow of the announcement fell hardest on high school students because most Minnesota colleges and universities had already canceled their in-person graduation ceremonies, according to Higher Education Commissioner Dennis Olson.

“I hope that each one of our students take pride in their accomplishments and the knowledge that, as the class of 2020, they took one for the team,” Olson said.

While the guidance isn’t totally binding, it builds off executive orders from Walz, including his stay-at-home order, and the state’s guidance against large gatherings. Ricker and Olson said they were unaware of any high schools or colleges that plan to violate the guidance.

While some schools have discussed delaying ceremonies until July or August to allow for more traditional events, Ricker said she couldn’t offer a timeline for when the state’s 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. Each household should be in a separate car, meaning no carpooling. Attendees should stay in their cars. While they can park next to each other if they keep the windows up for the entire ceremony, they should park 6 feet apart if windows are down.

Events should be brief, without food, beverages or bathrooms. And graduates should not throw their caps in the air, officials said, because that might encourage them to leave their vehicles.

As for private graduation parties, the Health Department is discouraging gatherings of people from multiple households. Epidemiologist Susan Klammer said they’re “not in the spirit” of the stay-at-home order.


Hope for Albert Lea students?

Albert Lea Area Schools Superintendent Mike Funk said the district is hoping that by moving Albert Lea’s graduation to July 24, some of the guidelines may be lifted.