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Minnesota students will finish the school year from home, but graduation plans remain in limbo

“We want to make sure to do something special for our graduates,” said Superintendent James Guetter of Red Lake County Central and Red Lake Falls Schools.

Gov. Tim Walz
Gov. Tim Walz made a point to address the class of 2020 — a group of students who won’t experience graduation ceremonies in the way they had expected heading into their final year.
Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune/Pool

On Thursday afternoon, Gov. Tim Walz provided some new direction on the remainder of the school year: Distance learning will continue through the remainder of the school year.

This decision puts Minnesota on the same path as at least 39 other states, which have already ordered or recommended that school buildings remain closed for the remainder of the school year. 

Statewide, schools have been closed since March 18. And the shift from in-person student learning at schools to home-based distance learning went into effect March 30. 

That means students haven’t been in contact with their teachers or classmates — for in-person class, sports or socializing — for nearly six weeks. 

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More details on what this means for schools and students will be issued tomorrow, Walz said. Fielding a couple of questions from reporters, he said he doesn’t know what the start of the next school year will look like. But state officials are already working out contingency plans — including a hybrid option to include both in-person learning and distance learning. 

He also made a point to address the class of 2020 — a group of students who won’t experience graduation ceremonies in the way they had expected heading into their final year. 

“It feels like that’s been taken — and it has,” he said. “But here’s what I do know: You will not be defined by staying home and missing proms and missing graduations. You will be defined by understanding how interconnected our world is and what it means to come together to try and solve hard problems. I would venture to say that the closeness of the classes of 2020 will be much closer than any other that came before.”

Hopes of hybrid grad ceremonies

The state education commissioner, Mary Cathryn Ricker, held a conference call with school leaders ahead of the daily 2 p.m. COVID-19 press conference. 

Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker
Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune/Pool
Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker
After that call, Superintendent David Law, head of Anoka-Hennepin Schools, said a few key pieces have been defined for the remainder of the school year: Students will not come back to their classrooms on May 5; services like on-site child care and free meal services will continue through the remainder of the school year (June 9, in his district); and academic instruction will continue remotely. 

But some key elements of this spring remain in question — including spring sports, ceremonies for things like National Honor Society, prom and graduation. 

“Of those, the most important one, I think, is: What are we doing with graduation?” he said. “Our message now has been: We are going to do as close to a graduation ceremony, in-person, as possible. We’re at the mercy of how  many people can be gathered in one spot.”

He’s coordinating five separate high school graduation ceremonies — each with a historical attendance of 3,000 to 5,000 people. 

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Offering an alternative scenario, he said he could see finding a way to host more like 600 students and educators at a graduation ceremony, staggering students out across the parking lot and having them still walk across a stage to receive a diploma as parents and family members watch it begin live streamed, from home. 

“Parents want to see their kids walk across the stage. That’s the most common theme I’m getting in emails right now,” he said. 

Wondering about summer

Looking beyond this school year, he’s wondering what this all means for summer school and even for the upcoming school year. State guidance pending, he anticipates teachers will need to devote more time to content review than they normally would — upping that period from a couple of weeks to a month or more. 

In the northwest corner of the state, Superintendent James Guetter shares Law’s primary concerns at this point. They’re all set to continue distance learning, he says. But he’s anxious for more guidance from state officials about  planning for graduation ceremonies.

Supt. David Law
Anoka-Hennepin School District
Supt. David Law
His students,  in both districts that he oversees — Red Lake County Central and Red Lake Falls Schools — will finish their school year just four weeks from now. And on Friday, May 22, he’s supposed to attend two graduation ceremonies, staggered by an hour and a half.

He’s left wondering whether the stay-at-order will be extended, or if in-person ceremonies may still take place, with modifications that are mindful of social distancing guidelines. 

We’d sure like the governor will provide some guidance on that,” he said, adding his districts are “not in a hot spot like Hennepin County and other parts of the state that are blowing up pretty fast, but in another month, we definitely could be.”

Brainstorming aloud, he wondered if graduation ceremonies in a month will entail a drive-through structure, with a parade through town – or if it will have to take an entirely virtual format. 

“Probably the other big thing is just — gosh, too bad for all the spring athletes and fine arts people who most likely their season will end before even starting,” he said. “Up till this point, we’ve tried to hold out hope that there might be a short season. Maybe that brings us back to why we want to make sure to do something special for our graduates.”