by Mike Knaak
Two unique and hopefully memorable events will likely replace a traditional graduation ceremony for Sartell High School seniors this year.
After the Minnesota Department of Education ruled out any large gatherings where social distancing would be difficult to maintain during the Covid-19 pandemic, school and community leaders created two events for the weekend of May 29-30.
A Senior Salute Drive-by along Pinecone Road is being planned by a group of parents and community volunteers for Friday, May 29. To maintain social distancing, participants will remain in vehicles and no walkers will be allowed. At the May 11 Sartell City Council meeting, Mayor Ryan Fitzthum announced that Liberty Bank donated $8,000 to cover costs of the event.
Pinecone Road will be closed off starting at 6 p.m. on May 29 so that students can get in place and parade participants can stage. Families will be limited to two vehicles per student.
“The Waters Church and Celebration Church have both generously allowed us to use their parking lot and property to stage the vehicles for the parade,” Jason Mathiasen, one of the event planners, wrote in an email.
The seniors will be lined up from 15th Street to 27th Street approximately 20 feet apart. Family, friends, teachers, staff and coaches will decorate cars and drive the route to recognize and honor the seniors with cheers, music and signs.
The parade will start at 7 p.m. and because of state guidelines, no portable toilets will be set out along the route. To adhere to public health guidelines, parade entries will be limited to those directly associated with the students – no businesses or other random groups, according to Mathiasen.
Parents will be notified about details of the salute via an email to be sent out after a meeting on Friday, May 15. Details including sign-up and directions for parents will be posted online at www.everythingsartell.com later this week.
On Saturday, May 30, a drive-in movie type ceremony is planned at the high school parking lot. The plans will be decided at school board meeting on May 18. Each senior’s family would be allowed one vehicle in the main lot with another lot available for others who want to attend. WJON would broadcast the event and there are plans for a livestream of the program so people in cars as well as family members at home can listen and watch. The program would begin at 9 p.m. and last about 45 minutes. A surprise will end the evening.
The program could include short speeches and presentations. A photographer will roam the parking lot photographing people in their cars. Seniors and family members must stay in their vehicles.
“The class of 2020 will always be remembered but they don’t know it right now,” Superintendent Jeff Schwiebert said. “We’re trying to do some things special for them.”
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. When the Minnesota Department of Education issued its rules last week, those options were taken off the table.
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.
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.
With the education commissioner’s ruling, those ideas were no longer possible. The rules eliminated ideas for a walk-through ceremony or a football field event, even with social distancing.
“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 guidelines said.
The concern, Schwiebert said, was that participants would gather before or after the event in the parking lot.
The state guidelines continued: ” 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.”
In a 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.”
For the past three months, everyone associated with graduation has worked to create a memorial and meaningful ending to the school year while sticking to the public health guidelines and Mathiasen recognized all that effort including help from city government and businesses.
“We struggled with how to pay for all of this,” Mathiasen wrote in an email. “Many of the local businesses who would typically support something like this are really struggling with the stay-at-home and mandated shut down.”
Mathiasen wrote that Mark Bragelman, president of Liberty Bank, asked how to help and that led to the $8,000 contribution. “He listened and then said, ‘Give these kids an amazing event. They deserve this and they deserve to know that there are a lot of us out here not directly connected to them who care and feel terrible for them.’”
Distance learning update
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.”
Reporter Dennis Dalman contributed to this story.