State issues guidance on graduation ceremonies during coronavirus pandemic

Graduation, Coronavirus
Photo credit (Getty Images / Feverpitched)

Friday, the Minnesota Departments of Health and Education released guidelines on how schools and families should prepare for graduation ceremonies.  

With schools likely shuttered for students through the end of the school year, many seniors are losing out on the ceremonies that send them off.  With physical distancing protocols still in place, large gatherings are not allowed in the state of Minnesota. 

Some schools had already been making plans, such as Shakopee.  They posted on Facebook on April 30th this message: "Shakopee Public Schools is excited to announce plans to recognize and honor the Shakopee High School graduating Class of 2020. Through all of the challenges we are currently facing, we would like to provide a special and unique way to acknowledge the senior students and send them off with a special graduation ceremony.
The ceremony will be held on Saturday, July 25 at 4 p.m. at Vaughan Field. In the event of inclement weather, the ceremony will be rescheduled and held on Sunday, July 26 at 4 p.m.
As we continue to navigate and comply with state mandates regarding COVID-19, we plan to monitor and reassess details as necessary. The ceremony will be held outdoors, and there will be measures in place that allow students to be recognized while still following the social distancing guidelines. We anticipate seating will be very limited for guests.
Again, we are monitoring all updates and guidance related to social distancing. As we get closer to the event, more details will be provided on attendance options/numbers.
We are excited to celebrate our students’ successes throughout their high school careers, and look forward to this wonderful event!"

On Monday, Governor Tim Walz talked about the importance of gathering for graduations, and graduation parties.  “I think right now, small family gatherings or something, I can imagine families having two sets of cousins, and wanting to do something in their backyard," said the Governor. "We gotta figure out how to do that, because quite honestly, folks who really get this, and are really caring, are going to do some of that.  Because it’s that important.  And I certainly don’t want to put any person or any business, in a position where something that important they cannot do.”

"We talk about retail and that dial going up.  That other dial, social, I don't want to forget that", added the Governor.

These guidelines hope to clarify what is possible for schools, and how they can safely honor their students with still preventing the spread of COVID-19 in their communities. 

This guidance was developed in consultation with school leaders and the Minnesota Department of Health, and it outlines different options for school districts, charter schools, and colleges and universities to consider while they contemplate how to best honor their graduates.  The state says in it's release, "Safety and well-being of Minnesota’s students and their families, as well as school staff, is our number one priority.

"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. 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.

"The safest way to observe graduation/commencement is for everyone to stay home. Indoor graduations and ceremonies held outside in stadiums and footballs fields are not permitted."

The state in recommending ceremonies be conducted remotely (virtually) so that attendees do not need to leave their homes. 

Guidance from the state also reiterates that outdoors ceremonies do not meet their standars for physical distancing.

"We know that many schools have considered ceremonies outside in stadiums or football fields. In-person social gatherings with people from multiple households, even in situations where ample space between attendees could be accommodated, does not comply with social distancing practices and introduces a great deal of contact unpredictability and increases the potential for disease transmission. These gatherings are not considered safe at any size and will not be permitted. Likewise, indoor graduations/commencement ceremonies will also not be permitted."

As for delaying ceremonies, the state is again discouraging the idea.  

"Some schools have indicated they are considering delaying graduation ceremonies until later in the summer to allow for a more traditional event. While we recognize the desire to honor this rite-of-passage in the more traditional way, we cannot offer a timeline for when public health guidance will be changed to accommodate large gatherings."

Below are the state's parameters for hosting a graduation/commencement ceremony or other celebration (e.g., car parade, parking lot ceremony) outside the home, which they do note, "increases the level of predictability and decreased risk of disease transmission."

GRADUATION/COMMENCEMENT CELEBRATION GUIDANCE If your school is considering hosting a graduation/commencement ceremony or other celebration outside of the home (e.g., car parade, parking lot ceremony) please:
  • Remember the safest option right now is for everyone to stay home.
  • Consider whether having an event encourages people in high-risk groups (particularly older adults and people with underlying health conditions) or ill individuals to come out rather than stay at home. People may come out because of their desire to celebrate this significant milestone and not wanting to be “left out.”
  • Consider what accommodations need to be made to ensure equitable participation (e.g., students and families without access to a vehicle).

If your school decides to host a graduation/commencement ceremony or other celebration outside of the home (e.g., car parade, parking lot ceremony):

  • Each household should be in a separate car; carpooling does not comply with social distancing.
  • Make it clear that people with COVID-19 symptoms (cough, fever, shortness of breath, etc.) should not attend – no matter what.
  • Attendees should remain in their individual cars.
    • If attendees are in cars with the windows up for the entirety of the ceremony, cars may park immediately adjacent to one another.
    • If attendees are in cars with windows down, cars should park 6 feet apart.
    • Provide clear messaging that individuals may not walk to the ceremony or participate outside of vehicles.
    • Create a traffic flow plan for how vehicles enter and exit the event.
  • Make the event brief.
  • Do not serve food or beverages at the event.
  • There should not be passing of objects or physical contact between households.
    • Graduation caps should not be thrown in the air outside as this may encourage attendees to leave the vehicle.
  • Do not provide public or portable bathrooms; this creates a risk of transmission.
  • Limit the number of speakers to the smallest number possible and ensure they avoid close contact (e.g., within 6 feet) of others. Speakers should not congregate, and should return to their vehicles following presentations.
    • Whenever possible, use individual microphones if multiple speakers will participate. If a microphone must be shared, consider cleaning between speakers or leaving it untouched on a stand.
  • Partner with local public safety officials.

GRADUATION/COMMENCEMENT CELEBRATION GUIDANCE  If your school decides to distribute materials (e.g., diplomas, cap and gown) via delivery or pick-up:

  • Practice contactless delivery or pick-up whenever possible, with staff wearing cloth face coverings and gloves (work gloves are permissible).
  • In curbside pick-up, social distancing guidelines apply. Individuals picking up materials should wear cloth face coverings and should not leave their car whenever possible.
  • In delivery, items should be deposited outside an individual’s residence.
  • Develop clear signage and communication between staff distributing and individuals receiving materials.
  • If payment is required, contact-less payment should be used in every possible scenario; if money is exchanged, the participants must use gloves.