Litchfield High School entrance

Litchfield High School

It has been challenging, amid the fast-changing and sometimes confusing directives around the COVID-19 pandemic, to plan a high school commencement.

But Litchfield High School Principal Jason Michels said earlier this week that he believes he’s found an option that can both celebrate the Class of 2020 and offer appropriate health safeguards for those who take part.

“I’m going to do whatever I can in a safe way for my kids to get up and have their cap and gowns on” and receive their diploma, Michels said.

Achieving that goal has been difficult, Michels said, because of what he called “inconsistent” communication from Gov. Tim Walz’s administration regarding what is an is not permitted in terms of graduation ceremonies.

“We’re all scrambling,” he added.

But he believes the district has a solution now, which he shared in a letter to members of the senior class and their parents May 18, and later, with the Independent Review. Commencement will be observed in two ceremonies — an in-person diploma pickup Saturday, May 30, at the Litchfield High School track and field complex, and a virtual commencement Sunday, May 31.

Participation in the in-person event will be “on a voluntary basis,” Michels’ letter said, and will take place from noon to 3 p.m. May 30. The event will include staggered arrival times for seniors, with those with last names starting A to E from noon to 1 p.m.; F-M from 1-2 p.m.; and N-Z from 2-3 p.m. in the complex parking lot.

In order to meet social distancing requirements and “ensure the health and safety of all participants,” the letter said, seniors and up to four family members will enter the track and field complex from the northeast, near the tennis courts, and walk south on the track. Three to six seniors and their families will enter at a time, in staggered alphabetical order. They will circle the track, pick up their diploma covers, have the traditional diploma photo taken, then return to their vehicles.

No seating, restrooms or water fountains will be used at the complex during the ceremony.

The virtual commencement celebration will include a “live stream pre-recorded broadcast” that will include presentation of the senior class, speeches, music and more on Facebook and YouTube. The ceremony also will be broadcast on KLFD at 1:30 p.m. May 31.

“...(G)raduation is a right (sic) of passage that is very important,” Michels’ letter said. “That being said, it is crucial that you understand that plans, especially the “Salute to Seniors” on the track, may need to be adjusted accordingly, contingent to the Governor’s orders. The safety of our students, staff and community is and must always be at the forefront of our planning and decisions.”

That conclusion to his letter was necessary due to the shifting communication and directives coming from the state since the pandemic and stay-home orders began.

Once the traditional commencement in the high school gym was nixed, Litchfield administrators — like many other school officials around the state — shifted their attention to an outdoor ceremony at football stadiums. But on May 8, the Department of Education issued guidance prohibiting indoor graduations as well as large outdoor gatherings in places like stadiums or football fields.

“My communication with parents has been very, very consistent,” Michels said. “(But) the rug got pulled out from under me.”

So, Michels began searching for other possibilities that could still deliver a special celebration, and on May 11 he told the Litchfield School Board that a drive-by graduation in the high school parking lot, with students having their “diploma photo” taken in front of the school entrance, was likely the best option. But days later, Michels said, the governor said such drive-by ceremonies were permitted, as long as participants did not leave their vehicles.

And that brought Michels back to the track and field complex, with participants staying in their vehicles until they begin their walk to receive their diplomas, leaving ample social distancing.

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