See more of the story

A car parade led through town by local police and fire departments.

A football field ceremony with hundreds of students spaced 6 feet apart, their parents looking on from the surrounding track and bleachers.

A virtual mash-up of recordings of seniors walking across the stage, tossing their caps in the air and posing for pictures with their parents.

Minnesota high school seniors may not get the graduation they dreamed of — striding across the stage in front of a crowd, diplomas in hand, before turning their tassels and bidding farewell to their friends and teachers. But high schools are working hard to come up with pandemic-proof ceremonies that honor the Class of 2020 publicly while not risking spread of the coronavirus.

"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't get two or three students or parents reaching out, saying, 'These kids deserve an in-person ceremony,' " said David Law, superintendent of Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest school district. "If that's possible, we're going to find a way."

The viability of these celebrations will depend on guidance from the state departments of Health and Education. The two departments are developing graduation guidelines that will be released in the coming weeks, Department of Education spokeswoman Wendy Hatch said.

Such large gatherings are off the table until at least May 18, the new expiration date for Gov. Tim Walz's statewide stay-at-home order. In announcing the extension Thursday, Walz acknowledged graduations are "a really important rite of passage" and said state officials are "trying to figure out a way to allow some of that to happen."

Champlin Park High School senior Callie Nguyen can hardly fathom the thought of missing out on a traditional commencement. The 18-year-old has waited most of her life for it and wants to see her family and friends filled with pride.

Nguyen and other seniors have already been robbed of spring sports and awards banquets, prom and senior send-offs — the iconic events in which memories are made. Now, they anxiously await a verdict on the ceremony that would mark the biggest milestone of their young lives.

"Throughout my whole high school years, I never would have thought that this would happen," Nguyen said.

Stepping up for seniors

The state's second- and third-largest school districts — St. Paul and Minneapolis — have committed to honoring their graduates with a virtual ceremony. Officials from the districts said it would be too difficult to put on a public event with social distancing guidelines in place.

St. Paul Public Schools will ask its roughly 2,900 seniors to submit portraits of themselves in their caps and gowns, which will be shown in a slide show format during the ceremonies for their respective high schools, spokesman Kevin Burns said. The district will put on 13 virtual graduations that will be simulcast online and on cable television.

Anoka-Hennepin is still mulling public options for its nearly 2,850 seniors with a virtual graduation being the last resort, Law said. The leading plan that has emerged is an outdoor ceremony at a football stadium with graduates and their parents safely spread out. Individual high school ceremonies could be staggered over several days, he said.

"What we don't have right now is any idea of how to check people on the way in to make sure that no one has a fever, or no one's got a cough," Law said. "Inevitably, we will deal with, people hug at graduation."

Richfield High School is also considering a football field ceremony for its nearly 250 graduates, though the commencement will likely be delayed from its original June 5 date. Only immediate family members would be allowed to sit spaced out in the bleachers during the summer send-off, said Richfield Public Schools spokeswoman Jennifer Valley.

Small-town schools are getting their whole community involved in the occasion.

About 200 Red Wing High School seniors will take part in a virtual graduation "production" in which each will be filmed at separate times walking across the stage in front of their immediate family, said Principal George Nemanich. It will take about two weeks to film every student and speaker. The recordings will be compiled into a final commencement video.

The celebration won't stop there. Downtown businesses will hang banners with seniors' pictures. There will also be a community parade in which graduates will park their cars downtown and family and community members will drive by waving and honking in support, Nemanich said.

"What makes Red Wing special … is that our community and our businesses in town in particular are really stepping up to the plate to help us recognize the seniors in a different way," he said.

In Worthington, graduation plans have been scaled back on the fly as confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to pile up.

The city is at the epicenter of a massive virus outbreak centered on the JBS pork plant, where hundreds of workers became infected. As of Saturday, there were 899 confirmed cases in Nobles County — more than any other Minnesota county except Hennepin.

Worthington High School Principal Josh Noble had planned a more traditional ceremony before the outbreak. The school has since settled on a virtual graduation video, in which students' names will be read as pictures of them in their caps and gowns are shown on screen.

After the commencement video ends, the school will have seniors and their parents report to an elementary school parking lot in their vehicles. Worthington's police and fire departments will escort them in a parade around Lake Okabena and through town.

"I think all of us are going to end up doing things a little bit different," Noble said of schools across Minnesota. "We have to do what we think is right to honor our kids, but also keep our kids and our community safe."

Making the most of it

Seniors aren't letting the disruption of the school year stop them from connecting with their classmates before their paths diverge.

St. Louis Park High School senior David Khabie and his friends recently surprised another friend with a birthday "drive around" in front of his house.

Breck School senior Thea Wallace and her friends space their vehicles out in an empty parking lot some evenings so they can safely chat face to face.

"It's definitely made us be more creative and find new things to do," Wallace said.

Hopkins High School seniors recently organized a "promdemic" in which they dressed for prom and tagged their classmates in photos they posted on social media.

Nguyen, the senior at Champlin Park High School, set up a website to honor her graduating class. Students, parents and teachers can share high school memories, messages of gratitude and post-graduation plans.

"I saw a lot of seniors posting their memories and all that they're thankful for," she said. "I decided maybe there's a way that I can put that all together."

Seniors across the state are coming to grips with the loss of these milestone moments and preparing for the possibility that they may not get to start their next chapter of college on campus, said Marguerite Ohrtman, president of the Minnesota School Counselors Association.

But the Class of 2020 is resilient, Ohrtman said, and these students will emerge stronger from the pandemic.

"I just think if they can get through a global pandemic then adulthood will be easy, right?" she said.

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234