by Mike Knaak
Sartell High School seniors will have to wait until May 18 for a decision on what their graduation ceremony will look like.
The state has promised to announce guidelines about how to conduct ceremonies safely during the current health crisis but also advised schools to wait until the last minute to decide.
At its May 6 meeting, Sartell-St. Stephen school district board members and administrators discussed a number of options to the traditional commencement scheduled for May 30. The board’s next meeting is May 18 and the board will wait until then to decide if they need cancel the scheduled event. The planned traditional event will go ahead if it meets standards set by the Minnesota Department of Health and Gov. Walz.
If not, there are other options on the table.
Superintendent Jeff Schwiebert and High School Principal Brenda Steve described ideas suggested during meetings they’ve had with parents and students. Recognition of the significant life milestone of graduation was a top issue for parents and students as well as keeping graduation traditions. Students also want a chance to share the event with their friends, family and teachers.
The students “highlighted what’s important to the class and that’s families see them get their diploma, honor every senior and have some sort of ceremony with the class,” Steve said.
Seniors suggested several options to the traditional large ceremony usually conducted in a packed school gym.
They suggested an outdoor event on May 29 and/or May 30 at the high school with each student receiving a diploma, being photographed and recognized by school leaders. Social distancing would be maintained and attendance would be limited to family. Steve estimated that approach would take about four hours.
The students suggested a second event for June 26 that would look more like a traditional ceremony. Students would gather on the football field with parents in the stands. Both groups would sit 6 feet apart. The decision to use June 26th will be made at the June 15th board meeting if necessary.
Schwiebert described these options in a letter sent to senior parents on May 7.
The board asked how many students will be around for an event in summer, long after the school year has ended. Steve said she asked that question and 21 said they would not be able to attend.
The board also discussed moving the football field event even later, into July or early August, and who would participate.
“It’s hard for them to know if they are ready to move on,” Steve said. “The closer we get to August, kids are moving. The later we go in August, the more kids won’t be around. It’s important for them to be together as a class.”
Whatever events finally take place, Steve said “It will go down in history as the most unique graduation ceremony we have had.”
Schwiebert said school and city leaders and parents are planning a parade on May 29 to honor graduates.
“Parents are looking for other things to recognize their kids,” Schwiebert said. “It’s been a tough May. A parade is a big deal to the families.”
In his letter to parents, Schwiebert wrote, “Everyone is working to try and make a special graduation for our Class of 2020. We are trying to wait as long as possible to make final decisions with the hope that things will improve. However, we are being realistic about Covid-19 and so it is necessary to have other plans in place with the goal of giving our kids as much as possible.”
Schwiebert and Assistant Superintendent Kay Nelson updated the board on distance learning plans. Teachers and administrators met May 1 and May 4 to plan for the rest of the year.
The two days without classes gave teachers a “chance to pause to reflect on how things are going. Teachers had time to regroup and put together the rest of their year,” Nelson said.
Schwiebert said the state Department of Education issued a directive late May 1 that no student should fail a class as a result of distance learning. That means, he said, that the district will need to adjust the high school grading structure with input from teachers, students and parents.
“The Department of Education doesn’t want us to throw anybody under the bus as a result of distance learning,” Schwiebert said. “We need to make every effort make sure that every kid gets an ample opportunity to earn the credit.”
Nelson said there will still be expectations.
“If they haven’t shown mastery, they will have an extended period of time to complete work,” Nelson said. “There’s a certain faction of our kids having a hard time with structure and engaging. Most kids are doing OK. Some are actually doing better. The majority are doing the best that they can and for the most part our kids are doing OK.”