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Graduation up in the air as Bismarck School Board hopes to make decision this week

Graduation up in the air as Bismarck School Board hopes to make decision this week

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The Bismarck School Board on Monday discussed what graduation might look like in the current coronavirus climate but settled on only one thing: it's hard to plan anything right now.

The board that leads the largest school district in the state considered a drive-in graduation ceremony at the MDU Resources Community Bowl before deciding that more information was needed before any decision could be made.

“I think this is a start to the process,” Board President Rick Geloff said. “It sounds like, from the public, there’s a want for some sort of ceremony.”

The school district put out a survey regarding graduation ceremonies that received more than 800 responses from parents and students. The results showed administrators that the most popular option with families was to hold an in-person, drive-in graduation event, rather than a virtual, online-only event, said Dr. Ben Johnson, secondary assistant superintendent for middle and high schools in the district.

The tentative plans included a ceremony for all four high schools in the district to have a drive-in graduation ceremony on May 23, 24 or 25, depending on weather, as it would be outdoors. Students could walk across a stage but parents and family members would stay in their cars, and watch and listen to the ceremony on a large screen with audio speakers.

Johnson said social distancing guidelines make any type of ceremony difficult to pull off, as the students and spectators would need to be at least 6 feet apart for physical distancing. Any ceremony would likely not include the traditional handshake and handing of diplomas to the graduates, he said. He thinks the drive-in ceremony is the best option.

“It allows us to have an in-person feel. It allows people to come together,” said Johnson, who added that he’s looking at what other schools across the country are doing for graduation.

Further complicating the matter is one of Gov. Doug Burgum’s executive orders, which prohibits any students in the state from entering school facilities. School buildings are closed to the public, with classes being handled through distance learning the rest of the academic year. Even if the district were to hold some kind of drive-in event, it would have to be off school property unless the executive order was repealed or modified -- hence the Community Bowl as a possible option.

District Superintendent Jason Hornbacher said he reached out to the governor’s office for guidance on graduation and students’ ability to enter school property. He expects an answer by the end of the week, he said.

The board directed administrators to come up with more options for a graduation ceremony, including the drive-in option at the Community Bowl, and present those options to the board within the week.

Year-end plan

The board didn’t take formal action on administrators’ “end of the year plan,” but it set the direction of the plan to wind down distance learning.

“I think all of these plans are going to be dynamic at this point given the uncertainty,” Board President Rick Geloff said.

The plan currently includes this timeline:

May 4 - 8

• Distance Learning would continue with new educational material for students this week.

May 11 - 15

• This would be the last week of learning new educational material at both the elementary level as well at the middle and high school levels. Any makeup work that remains would be turned in this week.

May 18 - 22

• Students would have this week to complete any makeup work that remains.

• Schools will schedule staggered times for families to drop off and pick up materials, such as laptops and books. Each school will reach out to families on how this will take place.

The end of year plan also includes the expectation that all district employees are expected to work through the end of the school year, or the end of their contract, and they will continue to be paid. Breakfast and lunch will continue to be distributed throughout the summer, but the distribution sites might change.

The district also is working on a reentry plan to address how and when students can come back to school, along with guidance on who can use the facilities and what kind of protocols will be in place. Those protocols may include disinfecting, safety procedures, smaller student groups and social distancing.

The district is hoping to provide some individual and small group supports to some students once the regular school year has completed but is waiting on guidance from several state agencies, including the Department of Health and the governor’s office.

Reach Bilal Suleiman at 701-250-8261 or Bilal.Suleiman@bismarcktribune.com

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