Graduation will be virtual for the Brainerd High School class of 2020.

A commencement ceremony for the 467 seniors will still be May 22, but students and families will not gather at Adamson Field for in-person celebration.

The decision comes after the Minnesota Department of Education and Minnesota Department of Health released graduation guidelines Friday, May 8, not permitting in-person graduation ceremonies indoors or outdoors. The guidelines encouraged virtual ceremonies on or around the original dates planned instead of waiting to do an in-person ceremony at a later date, as there is no timeline for when pandemic practices may subside.

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“So with your support and your blessing we will continue on and celebrate this great class of 2020,” BHS Principal Andrea Rusk told school board members Monday, May 11.

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Rusk said she met Friday with the school’s planning team, which included three senior parents, to discuss how to move forward with the virtual ceremony.

The celebration will be livestreamed on the school’s website and Facebook page at 8 p.m. May 22. Rusk, Superintendent Laine Larson, Board Chair Tom Haglin, select student speakers and musicians, and a teacher representative will be present on the football field, starting at 8 p.m. May 22, to livestream the virtual ceremony.

Teachers, staff and board members will pre-record the reading of graduates’ names, which will be played in conjunction with a video of senior photos during the livestream. Fireworks will be livestreamed at dusk after the ceremony. The fireworks will be set off from an undisclosed location so as not to draw a crowd.

The parent-run Grad Blast committee is working on a special photo backdrop that will be available for students to take pictures in front of with their caps and gowns the week following graduation. The backdrop will be at the high school for students to use when they pick up their diplomas.

It might not be the ceremony everyone hoped for, and it still may not make 100% of students and parents happy, but Rusk emphasized her job to make sure students are safe and everyone is represented equally. She thanked the community for their messages over the weekend with great, well-intentioned ideas for graduation. She also referenced a specific message from a parent of an immunocompromised senior who worried about an in-person ceremony happening in which his student would not be able to participate.

The school board unanimously approved the virtual ceremony.

The Grad Blast committee plans to have some sort of tailgate or cookout event later in the summer to celebrate graduates, provided it is safe to do so.

Possible parade

Ideas of a walking or vehicle parade continue to swirl. Brainerd International Raceway owner Kristi Copham reached out to Rusk and is willing to work with the school to have a graduation parade on the racetrack at some point if at all possible.

Rusk said she is open to the idea and continues to communicate with Copham, but a parade may be difficult, given the size of the high school and the graduating class.

“I’ve said from the beginning that I look at the senior class through an equity lens, and when we’re on the field, we’re all equal,” she said. “We’re dressed alike and we get them there to the field. But if we have a parade — a walking parade or a driving parade … know that some students wouldn’t be able to participate, so we’re trying to be really cautious and think of ways to honor and celebrate them to make sure they’re all included.”

Rusk also noted there are seniors with accessibility challenges and health challenges that would still make their participation in a parade difficult.

“I love parades,” she said, “but I get a little uneasy thinking about how we might be able to execute a parde safely and then also make sure that we’re inclusive to every senior being able to participate.”

Board Chair Tom Haglin urged Rusk to continue looking at the parade option with her committee. She said she would and noted a parade could work given the state’s guidelines if the community is compliant.

Through all the changes and uncertainty, Rusk praised the senior class for their respectfulness, strength and grit as they deal with the challenges in front of them.

Senior Recognition Night

Senior Recognition Night will be virtual as well, with Rusk and Jessica Gangl, executive director of the Brainerd Public Schools Foundation, pre-recording a video that will be shared with seniors, parents and the community Wednesday, May 13. The video should be up by 6:30 p.m. Wednesday but will be available for those interested to watch at their leisure.

Thursday, May 14, is Brainerd High School senior recognition night on WWWI CASH 95.9. Community members can call in beginning at 6 p.m. to give a shoutout to BHS seniors. The number to call is 218-829-9994.

Graduation at Lincoln and Brainerd Learning Center

The Lincoln Education Center and Brainerd Learning Center will host virtual graduation ceremonies as well.

Lincoln Education Center Principal Amy Jordan plans to have a pre-recorded virtual ceremony distributed to students and their families at 1 p.m. May 21, the original time of graduation. She will read statements from each of the seven graduating students and will share her message to students. The ceremony will not be livestreamed or shared with the general public because of confidentiality of the school’s programs.

Staff will then offer the option for students to pick up their diplomas at the school or have staff members deliver them if need be.

At the Brainerd Learning Center, Principal Jessica Haapajoki said her program will follow the same guidelines. She will pre-record a ceremony with her speech and with the teaching staff reading names and saying something about the roughly 50 students graduating. The video will be released at 4 p.m. May 21. There will then be a time set aside for students to pick up their caps and gowns to take home and take pictures if they wish before returning them to the school when picking up their diplomas.

Students at both the Lincoln Education Center and Brainerd Learning Center have the option to participate in the general BHS graduation ceremony, too.

Words from the board

Board member Charles Black Lance shared a story from his own high school graduation he hoped might help this year’s graduates cope with all the changes.

As a child, Black Lance watched his two older siblings have a large traditional Native American powwow with their family and community in celebration of their high school graduation. But he never got his own powwow for various reasons, but especially because his grandfather — who was instrumental in the planning and implementation — died before Black Lance graduated high school. He said his graduation was much different than he expected but no less special.

“I’m so pleased that my parents did what they could to celebrate my graduation,” he said. “And I hope that our graduates this year look at it down the road — their graduations — in the same way that I do.”

Haglin followed up with similar sentiments, expressing his disappointment as a parent with both a high school and college senior this year.

“It’s definitely different,” he said, “but I try to remind them that 10, 20, 30 years down the road you’ll always have this memory of, ‘We didn’t have a ceremony because…’”



THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.