ST. PAUL — State education officials on Friday, May 8, rolled out guidelines for graduation ceremonies that barred in-person gatherings in football stadiums or auditoriums and recommended that school districts, colleges and universities host virtual events due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The guidelines aren't requirements and state education and health officials said enforcement would focus on education rather than punishment. They urged districts to prioritize options that could limit or prevent the gathering of students and families from different households.
The state recommendations came as K-12 school districts, colleges and universities around the state prepared to honor seniors and as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths associated with the disease continued to climb in Minnesota.
State Departments of Education, Health and Higher Education worked together to outline plans for commencement ceremonies that could maintain public health guidelines. Officials said they'd worked with individual districts prior to issuing the guidance and had not heard reports of schools planning to hold ceremonies that would violate the recommendations.
"The guidance is there because our priority is going to be the safety and the health of our students and their families," Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said.
The department heads said they'd heard from districts considering postponing graduation ceremonies until later in the summer but couldn't offer guidance about whether orders limiting gatherings would lift by then.
Districts considering car parades or parking lot ceremonies should keep ceremonies short and ensure that students and families don't carpool if they don't reside in the same household.
Protocols should also be set up to keep vehicles six feet apart, limit contact with microphones or sanitize amplifying devices between different users and bar graduates from throwing their caps in the air if they are within close proximity to their peers or others. And officials said the safest way to host the graduations is to do so online.
Even with thorough planning for social distancing and cleaning, bringing together a large group of people could spur many opportunities for the virus to spread and for Minnesotans to fall ill, they said.
"Even when those logistics are well-planned, it's impossible to control for every potential avenue for transmission," Department of Health Epidemiologist Susan Klammer said. "As we hear about plans that might not fit within this guidance, it's education to help them understand the whys behind this guidance versus looking to legal ramifications right off the bat."
The University of Minnesota was set to hold a virtual system-wide commencement ceremony next month and other colleges mailed out individual graduation boxes to graduates, Higher Education Commissioner Dennis Olson said.
Officials didn't have separate guidance for graduation parties but said families should comply with the governor's stay-at-home order and limit in-person gatherings with people who don't reside in their household.
Republican lawmakers on Friday took issue with the guidance on social media, saying smaller schools should have more flexibility to hold in-person ceremonies with social distancing measures in place.
“This one-size-hurts-all approach completely ignores the thoughtful deliberations and plans already in place with local school leaders," Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, said. "Legislators and school districts have submitted plans to MDE, but instead of a transparent dialogue, we get a top-down approach that diminishes this important milestone for thousands of Minnesota graduates and their families.”