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Mandan High School celebrates graduation with modified ceremony

Mandan High School celebrates graduation with modified ceremony

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Mandan High School's 211 graduates lined up and took a squirt of hand sanitizer from stations set up in the end zone at the Starion Sports Complex before walking in a socially-distanced processional to their seats on the football field, each 6 feet away from the next. School Board President Tim Rector, donning black rubber gloves, handed each graduate a diploma as they walked past him on stage without the customary handshake.

But besides those abnormalities, Mandan's class of 2020 graduation ceremony was as normal as one could hope for during a pandemic.

Each of Mandan's graduation speakers made reference to the COVID-19 pandemic that ended their final year in school prematurely.

"COVID-19 has stormed the world. It has stormed our world," said Valedictorian Kayla Wentz, before describing the different ways students had been affected by school closures caused by COVID-19.

"Because of COVID, we've had virtually no social interaction. I am pretty sure that by the third or fourth week (without school), even those who consider themselves to be introverts were desperate to be around people," Wentz said.

Schools in North Dakota have been closed to students since March 15, following an executive order by Gov. Doug Burgum that was later extended to keep schools closed through the remainder of the school year. Burgum on May 6 amended the order to allow for high school graduation ceremonies to be held on school property, with restrictions. The state issued guidance that school officials could use to decide whether and how to have graduation ceremonies while in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic that has upended daily life across the globe.

There were guidelines for several options, including a virtual or livestream ceremony, a drive-in event, a parade, multiple ceremonies with small portions of classes, a ceremony at a large outdoor field, and a ceremony at a large auditorium or other venue.

Areas of consideration included how attendees will enter and exit an in-person event to minimize contact, social distancing for graduates and spectators and sanitation protocols.

Also Friday, graduates of Bismarck's South Central High School held ceremonies for its 36 graduates in three separate ceremonies.

Seniors and their families sat spaced apart, students who spoke had to use different microphones and they didn’t shake the principal’s hand as they picked up their pre-sanitized diplomas. 

Local schools surveyed seniors and their parents for their preferences on types of graduation ceremonies. The results showed overwhelming support for in person ceremonies in May, according to school administrators in Bismarck and Mandan, who said they would do their best to make it happen.

Mandan held its graduation on Friday due to inclement weather in the forecast for Sunday.

It took the Bismarck School Board two special meetings to figure out graduation plans for its high schools, highlighting the difficulty of planning an in-person event during the COVID-19 era. The board ultimately voted to hold in-person ceremonies at the Community Bowl on the Bismarck State College campus, where they would have more room to space out graduates and spectators.

The guidelines that local schools have put in place to hold the ceremonies are intensive, but differ slightly from school to school.

Bismarck is planning to have ceremonies for its three major high schools several hours apart on Sunday to give crews time to deep clean the bleachers and the stage between ceremonies.

Shiloh Christian School will sanitize diplomas before placing them in alphabetical order on a clean table for graduates to pick up as their names are called. South Central High School, Bismarck’s alternative high school, did the same.

Dickinson High School isn’t allowing spectators to sit in the bleachers and is instead having parents drive their cars onto the Dickinson State University football field to watch the ceremony on a large screen as graduates are escorted to a staging area.

Despite the differences, social distancing was a common struggle for all schools. The 6 feet of spacing recommended to keep attendees safe is not conducive to an event that typically crams hundreds of graduates and their families into tightly packed gyms and auditoriums for more than an hour.

This was dealt with by holding ceremonies outdoors, limiting the number of guests who could attend in person and livestreaming the ceremony for those who couldn’t attend. Most schools have limited the number of guests to four per graduate via a ticketed entry system.

In addition to local ceremonies, State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler announced that the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction is partnering with Forum Communications and Microsoft to produce a virtual statewide graduation ceremony at 2 p.m. Central on Saturday, May 30. It will be broadcast on ABC statewide and be livestreamed on Forum Communication newspaper websites.

"This live statewide ceremony is intended to provide another special opportunity to honor and celebrate our 2020 graduates and their families, who have already sacrificed so much," Baesler said.

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