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State School Superintendent Kirsten Baesler announced Wednesday that Gov. Doug Burgum is allowing North Dakota’s schools to use school property for high school graduation ceremonies.

North Dakota’s school facilities have been closed to students since March 16 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Burgum ordered the closures by executive order. He said Wednesday he was modifying his directive to allow school facilities to host graduations, “with proper social distancing, cleaning and safety precautions.”

The change was accompanied by detailed guidance, produced by the governor’s office, the Department of Public Instruction, and the state departments of health and emergency services, about how to conduct graduations while minimizing the risk of spreading COVID-19. The guidance document is posted on the Department of Public Instruction’s website.

“We recognize that graduating from high school is a significant milestone in the lives of our seniors, their families, their friends, and other loved ones,” the governor said. “We think the guidance Superintendent Baesler and I are providing offers options for schools to conduct their graduation ceremonies safely.”

Decisions on whether, when, or where graduation ceremonies should be held remain in the hands of local school boards and administrators.

“These are potential solutions for local consideration,” Baesler said. “It’s important to note that each school district consider whether a graduation ceremony or celebration should be held, and if so, how can it be held while respecting the recommended guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the North Dakota Department of Health.”

The guidance suggests that administrators “consider the status of COVID-19 in your community and surrounding areas when deciding whether to hold graduation,” and says public health officials “can suspend any in-person part of graduation if there is a COVID-19 outbreak in the area before graduation.”

The guidance includes a number of nontraditional options for holding ceremonies, including a “graduation parade” and a “drive-in graduation” in which families would remain in parked vehicles to observe the proceedings.

The safety recommendations include:

  • Six feet between rows of chairs that are set up in the graduation space.
  • Six feet between chairs in a row – exceptions for immediate family if desired.
  • Two empty rows between the rows being used for people who are attending graduation.
  • No physical contact between people who don’t live together – no handshakes, hugs, etc.
  • Family photos are OK for family members who live together.
  • Six feet between students who are walking in a processional.
  • Limit number of guests per graduate for any in-person event. Limits should be based on the space available and the distance guidelines.
  • Schools should livestream the ceremony if possible.
  • Consider whether to require masks.
  • Consider how a student should receive his or her diploma. One possibility would be to put the diploma on a table for the student to pick up.
  • Ensure that adequate bathroom and hand-washing facilities are available.
  • Set up hand sanitizer stations throughout the graduation space.

Suggestions for holding graduation ceremonies include:

  • “Virtual graduation” via Zoom, Teams, Skype, or other video conference software.
  • Graduation ceremonies are livestreamed, with graduates and school administrators on the site, and family and spectators watching from a distance.
  • Drive-in graduation – family and friends of graduates stay in their vehicles, and the ceremonies held in a large open space, such as a parking lot or a park.
  • Graduation parade: Families and community members observe parade of graduates, while the graduates maintain a safe distance from spectators and between themselves.
  • Outdoor graduation: Maintain space between graduates and limit attendance so that people don’t have to sit closely together. Seat families in every three rows, graduates six feet apart.
  • Multiple graduation ceremonies in the same venue. This would allow for smaller groups of graduates. If multiple graduation ceremonies are held, the venue must be sanitized between ceremonies.
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