Biodegradable balloons to release in place of tasseled caps, contact-less diploma pick-up and radio-broadcast commencement addresses are just some of the adjustments area schools have made heading into this year’s graduation season.

As of early May, Minnesota districts knew they had two primary options for celebrating the class of 2020 — go digital with a video conference or go mobile with a drive-in event — and those in Steele County have opted for the latter, with a number of “in-person” ceremonies set for later this spring.

Even though a statewide stay-at-home order has been eased, gatherings of more than 10 people from separate households are still prohibited due to the continued spread of COVID-19 throughout the state — meaning traditional commencements are not an option at this point. Although some districts entertained the idea of postponing graduation until an in-person event would be possible, locally, all have opted to keep their original dates for fear that students — especially those joining the military — or their families might not be available later this summer.

While Owatonna Public Schools has planned its drive-in ceremony for the parking lot at Federated Insurance, both Blooming Prairie and Medford will have students drive through the school’s parking lot to hear speeches and pick up diplomas. In each case, families are limited to one car per student except under special circumstances, which may include having two primary households. Safety guidelines provided by the Minnesota Department of Education on drive-in ceremonies include making sure every household is in a separate car, having all attendees remain in their vehicles and not offering either food or restrooms during the event.

While the MDE outlined the possibility for parking lot ceremonies, the department also said that, “the safest option right now is for everyone to stay home.” It asked districts to consider whether these events might encourage at-risk family members to come out when it would be safer for them to remain indoors, and encouraged districts to consider accommodations for families who may not have access to a vehicle.

In Steele County, high school administrators say students expressed significantly greater interest in a parking lot celebration than a virtual commencement. Staff members added that, by finding ways to bring the event off the screen, they are trying to make it as memorable and meaningful as possible for the seniors.

Still, some are advising those with pre-existing conditions or who are especially at risk for a more severe case of COVID-19 to stay home. Additionally, all proceedings will be broadcast via local radio stations and streaming services. For more details on the specific celebrations in each district, see below.

Owatonna: Parking lot party, porch lights at night

The Huskies will graduate as planned on the afternoon of Sunday, June 7, coming together in the parking lot of Federated Insurance’s A.T. Annexstad Building along South Cedar Avenue for a drive-in celebration. Owatonna High School Principal Kory Kath said that staff had been planning a similar event before guidance came down from the MDE — the main thing that has changed is now students won’t be able to leave their cars and can only roll down driver-side windows in order to comply with social distancing guidelines.

After this new guidance was issued, Kath and his staff put out a survey to the graduating class asking if students still wanted to have a drive-in ceremony, or if they’d prefer to switch to a video format.

“It was overwhelming that students still wanted to do the drive-in,” he said. “The most important thing for us was to make sure that we had student voice coming into this and that we met the needs of students and what they wanted to see from their graduation. Then, from there, we wanted to make it a community celebration.”

After sending out a letter to families over the weekend, Kath said he expects that now is the time when students who need special accommodations will hopefully start to reach out to staff. He added that the school’s first priority would be figuring out access to a vehicle for teens that don’t have one readily available, because “they need to be inside a car to meet guidelines.”

In addition to the 2 p.m. ceremony, the district will also be taking photos of seniors with their diplomas in the morning at the Steele County fairgrounds. Students are grouped into three, hour-long time slots by last name. According to Kath’s letter, seniors must arrive in cars, drive through the Owatonna Foundation Building, then step out into the photo area, where they will get their diploma cover and have their photo taken.

After the ceremony, the district is asking Owatonna residents to turn on their porch lights in honor of the class of 2020 on the night of June 7. The high school and football field will also be lit to honor seniors, and residents are invited to drive by and see the lights between 9:30 and 9:50 p.m.

Meanwhile, the Owatonna Alternative Learning Center — which hosts students from around the county and beyond — is planning a drive-in ceremony of its own for noon June 4. While Principal Jim Kiefer said he is still hammering out the details, he also heard from students that they’d prefer an “in-person” gathering over a completely virtual graduation.

Blooming Prairie: Broadcast speeches, town-wide parade

As opposed to Medford and Owatonna, who will have speakers address the cars live during the graduation ceremony, Blooming Prairie Public Schools is pre-recording its program — which is set to begin at 11 a.m. on May 31. Students and families can tune into Kat Kountry 105 on FM 104.9 from their cars, hearing their peers speak and their names read as they filter through the high school parking lot to pick up their diploma and get their photo taken.

“We’ll have an order of cars in which they’ll be coming up, we’ll have a stage there and we’ll have diplomas out on tables,” said Principal John Worke. “They can get it if they choose … but we will have someone there if they can’t get out of the car, we can give it to them with gloves and a mask on.”

After the procession through the parking lot, cars will parade through Blooming Prairie, accompanied by the Fire and Police departments. Unlike when the football team returned from the state championship and filed down Main Street, this parade will hit every street in town, according to Worke. He estimated that this part of the celebration will begin around noon.

“We’ve contacted the chamber, so the area businesses may have signs down Main Street just like the state football game. We’re just going to celebrate a different group in similar ways,” he added. “People can come outside and give them a clap or a wave.”

Medford: Biodegradable balloons, grads may walk?

At the northern end of Steele County, Medford High School is planning an event that combines elements of both Owatonna and Blooming Prairie’s ceremonies. It will take place in the school parking lot on the evening of May 29, but instead of driving through, the school has the space to let each family park in alphabetical order and take in speeches from their cars.

Like Kath and Worke, Principal Kevin Babcock said he and his staff were in close communication with other area schools — bouncing ideas off of each other, with everyone ultimately landing on similar events. However, Babcock is also trying to find a way to have students physically get out of their cars and walk across a stage — something that turned as up important to seniors in a recently administered survey. He said he’s in contact with the district’s legal counsel to see if that’s something that can be done while still complying with state requirements.

“Nobody would leave their car except to do a line-up, where they would drive up to the front by the stage. Their diploma would be sitting on a table up on the stage,” he said, adding that the student would grab the diploma and walk from one end of the stage to the other. “I’ll be announcing the students’ names remotely. The only people getting out of the car would be the people in the car, so unless that gets completely shut down, that’s what we’re planning on right now.”

In addition to broadcasting the event online and on the radio, Babcock added that the district will be filming the ceremony and sending out hard copies to students. Many seniors have also taken individual photos of themselves throwing their caps to be compiled into the video. For the ceremony itself, staff members have also ordered biodegradable maroon and gold balloons for each senior to release when Babcock officially presents the class of 2020.

Reporter Bridget Kranz can be reached at 507-444-2376. Follow her on Twitter @OPPBridget. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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