David Law expected to shake his son’s hand as he walked across the stage during his high school graduation ceremony. Photos would be taken. Memories would be made.
But Minnesota state education and health officials officially put the kibosh on that when they announced Friday that graduations must go virtual in a world navigating a global pandemic.
Not even high school or college graduations in outdoor stadiums or on football fields are deemed safe. It’s not just a “math problem” to keep students and attendees the recommended 6 feet apart, health officials said. It also would be difficult to prevent transmission of the highly contagious coronavirus as large numbers of people passed through the same entrance or used the restrooms.
State officials say they are strongly urging the recommendations as Minnesota battles rising numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases. The state’s stay-home order extends to May 18.
For many, the recommendations were expected. Even before the Friday announcement, school districts and colleges across the state had already decided or were devising alternatives to graduation traditions that allow students to cap their high school and college years to cheers from family and friends.
Most students and graduates are disappointed that in-person graduations are nixed. But the decision also is sparking anger for some and relief for others.
“I’m getting e-mails every five minutes from people opposing the virtual [ceremony],” said Law, superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin School District.
Some opponents argue that an in-person graduation probably isn’t any more risky than going to Menards.
“But at Menards people don’t walk out tearfully, hugging each other for an hour — at least not in my Menards experience,” Law said.
As the father of a graduating senior, he understands the loss people are feeling. “These are the stages of grief that we’re seeing, including anger,” Law said.
A week ago, he received angry e-mails from families upset that district officials were considering holding ceremonies on school football fields, concerned about students with diabetes, asthma or other health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the COVID-19 respiratory disease caused by the virus.
They also were concerned about bringing the virus home to grandparents who lived with them.
“When you serve 3,000 families, they all want something different,” Law said. Most metro districts are planning virtual graduation ceremonies, Law said. Some are debating in-person ceremonies later this summer.
But Law said that seems difficult to plan on considering it’s unclear whether even the Minnesota State Fair can be held in August.
Delaying graduation also could leave out some students. “We have 70 to 100 students each year who go in the armed forces, and they would miss out,” Law said.
For most districts, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, virtual ceremonies may include a mix of prerecorded and live speeches, along with the introduction of each graduate as a photo flashes on screen.
State officials acknowledged the disappointment graduates and their families feel but know that many will find creative ways to celebrate, such as with car parades. They urge people to stick to public health guidelines that discourage in-person social gatherings with people from multiple households — even in situations where ample space between attendees can be accommodated.
“The health and safety of our students and their families will always be our top priority,” said Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker.
Most public and private Minnesota colleges had already postponed their spring graduation ceremonies before Friday’s announcement, with the hope that they can hold in-person ceremonies later this summer or early fall, said Dennis Olson, commissioner of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.
In the interim, some colleges will find ways to celebrate the graduates on the days they were expected to walk across a stage.
On Saturday, the 429 students of the College of St. Benedict who expected to don a cap and gown will be able to post photos of themselves celebrating at home while posting words of inspiration and hope for the future on the college’s commencement page and its social-media accounts.
The plan is to have an in-person graduation ceremony in the near future.
“It’s such a pivotal time in your college career,” said Tammy Moore, a spokeswoman for the college. “It’s such a celebratory moment that a virtual celebration wouldn’t capture what it meant emotionally for them.”
Minnesota State University, Mankato shipped “commencement-in-a-box” packages to its graduates and will launch a special website Saturday that will include videos of speeches and photos of graduates.
The university is inviting graduates to participate in the annual fall commencement in December.
The University of St. Thomas also will send similar packages to its students and host an interim virtual celebration on May 23 — the planned pre-pandemic graduation date.
Eventually, the university plans to have an in-person ceremony, said Karen Lange, vice president of student affairs. These students left campus to finish up their degree online, she said.
“They would like to see each other again,” Lange added.
Staff writer Tim Harlow contributed to this report.
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788