Schools delay or get creative to celebrate graduations

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — School officials and students across North Dakota are looking at creative ways to celebrate the high school Class of 2020, hoping to ensure the rite of passage is recognized while keeping social distancing guidelines in mind amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Others are banking on a potential COVID-19 breakthrough and are delaying the pomp and circumstance for weeks and even months so that seniors may be able to move their tassels in as close to a traditional ceremony as possible.

Gov. Doug Burgum closed schools indefinitely in March by executive order but amended it last week to allow ceremonies on school property with proper social distancing and other safety precautions, including limiting the number of attendees.

Decisions on how to mark the milestone at the state’s 181 high schools were left to local school officials.

North Dakota’s position is far more relaxed than neighboring Minnesota’s. That state on Friday said indoor graduations and ceremonies held outside in stadiums and on football fields are not permitted. Officials said such gatherings are not considered safe at any size and are encouraging schools to hold online events instead.

In Napoleon, in southeastern North Dakota, superintendent Richard Bjerklie said the May ceremony for 15 graduating seniors has been postponed until July 26. Other small schools in the region have made similar moves to delay the ceremonies well into the summer, he said.

Napoleon wants to use its gymnasium as it has historically, Bjerklie said.

“Our hope is the (delay) will give us our best chance to have it with the most amount of families that can attend,” he said.

In North Dakota’s capital city, the school board voted to hold ceremonies for the three big high schools — Bismarck High, Legacy and Century — at the outdoor stadium on the Bismarck State College campus at staggered times on May 24. Graduation ceremonies have been held at the city’s large event center downtown in the past.

Bismarck High School Principal David Wisthoff said officials thought it “risky” to hold the ceremonies inside the event center.

There are about 900 graduates in total at the three schools, and graduates are limited to two guests.

Wisthoff said the outdoor stadium seats about 5,000 people but only every other row of seating will be used and families are to be separated by at least 6 feet. He said officials are looking at expanding seating onto the field “which allows us to add a few more people.”

Bowbells High School’s Class of 2020 — all eight of them — are taking part in what they’ve dubbed a reverse parade on what would have been the day of the normal graduating ceremony in the tiny northwestern farming community of about 330 people.

The idea is for the graduating seniors to stand spaced along a balloon and banner-decorated sidewalk on the two-block portion of the city’s Main Street while parents, friends and community members drive by in their vehicles and honk, wave and yell well-wishes and congratulations.

“I think it will be kind of cool and not something you get to do every day,” said 17-year-old Bowbells senior Chelsea Woodbeck.

Still, Woodbeck said she feels “cheated” by the coronavirus that closed all North Dakota schools in mid-March. Prom and spring sports were cancelled, along with the annual senior banquet. She never got to clean out the contents of her locker; instead school officials delivered them to her doorstep.

“It would be nice to get an actual ceremony, too,” she said.

Celeste Thingvold, the school’s superintendent and principal, said details are still being worked out but another ceremony is planned to hand out diplomas to the students on June 21, following guidelines set by the state.

Said Thingvold: “One of the comments I heard was ‘So much has been taken away from us this year. Why take away graduation?’”

Willie Thibault, the superintendent of the Mott-Regent School District in southwestern North Dakota, said he “literally hurts for our seniors.”

Thibault said details were still being worked out on the graduation ceremony for the school’s 13 seniors. Several hundred people typically attend graduation ceremonies at the armory in Mott, even if there is just a handful of graduates, he said.

“We want to make it the coolest it can be under the circumstances in this journey that is the next stepping stone for them,” Thibault said. “To have all this upset the apple cart, we’re picking up all the apples and doing the best we can.”

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