This Sunday’s Detroit Lakes High School commencement will put a period on one of the strangest spring semesters of any school year in Detroit Lakes history.
What began as an unplanned, 10-day "spring break" in mid-March to make plans for returning to class under COVID-19 restrictions turned into two months of distance learning and canceled school activities.
No senior prom. No grad bashes. No final spring sports season. No senior pranks. And no commencement ceremony.
But as the latter scenario played out in school districts across Minnesota, the Detroit Lakes School Board decided to postpone the planned graduation ceremony from May 17 to June 28, rather than cancel the event or change the format to a virtual ceremony.
The hope, as school board chairwoman Amy Erickson put it at a May 11 work session, was that the state would ease its COVID-19 social distancing restrictions enough to allow for an in-person ceremony, to take place at Mollberg Field.
In the end, the board's patience paid off: Though their families will have to watch and listen to the festivities remotely, the graduates will be able to gather together one last time to receive their diplomas at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, June 28.
"I feel they are trying to make the right decision for us, I just wish our families could be more involved," said Taylor Tucker, who served as student council president for the 2019-20 school year. "After the ceremony the graduates are supposed to stand outside the fence while the parents drive past us in a parade. ... I wish we could get in the cars with our families and do a parade throughout town so more people could be involved, but I understand that brings up more concerns of people gathering (in large groups).
"I’ve accepted the fact that graduation won’t be anything close to normal, because we’ve had a lot of time to think about it," she added. "It will definitely be remembered, that’s for sure; I can’t wait to tell my kids about this someday."
"It obviously stinks that our family members can’t be there, but it’s nice to have one last time together as a class and have some closure on high school," said Brina Smith, one of Tucker's classmates. "I think it’s really cool that our school district is trying hard to make things work for our class and wants to give us the best senior ending we can with all that’s going on."
Still, having missed out on so much of their final school year, seniors were understandably shocked at how the 2020 year ended.
"I was in denial," said Grant Fritch-Gallatin, another graduating senior. "I was really shocked that it (March 17) was our last day."
"It sucked, to be honest," added fellow Class of 2020 member Daniel Heikes. "It wasn’t fun, going from planning out the last part of our senior year, to everything from prom to track being canceled, and no chance of it coming back — but you look at the bigger picture, and it’s just the way things had to be. I think everyone kind of understood that, but it was still sad, the way we had to say goodbye to our senior year."
Tucker said that the last three months of her senior year were by far the most difficult, not just academically, but also from a personal standpoint: Her family had taken a large enough financial hit from the coronavirus that she decided to take on a full-time job at the Sapphire restaurant in Detroit Lakes, while still completing all the necessary schoolwork to earn her diploma.
"It was very difficult, but most teachers were understanding about that," she said.
This fall, Tucker plans to attend Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, where she will be majoring in forensic psychology. She said that her classes will be a 50-50 mix of online and in-person sessions — "and honestly, I will definitely take that!"
Fritch-Gallatin, meanwhile, is headed to the United States Marine Corps, where he will begin basic training this fall. He said he will be quarantined on base with his fellow recruits for the first two weeks.
Smith is headed to the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, where she will be pursuing a career in physical therapy.
"As of right now, classes will be kind of normal, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot of them being online," she said.
- All you need to know about this year's senior class
- Smile! Check out senior photos from all the 2020 grads
Friends and family of the Class of 2020 won't be able to attend Sunday's ceremony in person. Detroit Lakes High School Principal Darren Wolf said that with anticipated 200 seniors graduating, and current social distancing guidelines for live gatherings limited to 250 people or less, there just wasn't any safe way to allow for spectators.
"I can't imagine how hard it's going to be for the parents that can't be there," he said. But, at the same time, "We're so excited, because when we first started planning for graduation it didn’t sound at all like we were going to be able to have our students there, in person ... I think it's really cool that we are able to offer that to them."
Seniors and participating school staff and administration will be required to wear masks for the ceremony, which is expected to last 60-90 minutes. After the ceremony, friends, family and well wishers will begin driving between the seniors' parked cars, honking their horns, cheering and shouting their congratulations to the graduates. The congratulatory parade will last until the last vehicle has made the loop around Mollberg Field.
"We want the community to know about the parade, so that as many of them as possible will come out and wish our seniors well," Wolf said.
WHAT: Detroit Lakes High School graduation
WHEN: 2:30 p.m. Sunday, June 28
WHERE: Mollberg Field on campus
WHO: Due to social distancing, only participating seniors and staff members will be permitted at the ceremony. No guests will be allowed.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR SENIORS: Face masks will be required at the ceremony for all participating seniors and staff. Seniors should park on the street along the east, west and south sides of Mollberg Field, then walk to the west side of the field, by the end zone, arriving no later than 1:45 p.m. The students will line up and, at 2:30 p.m., will march into the stadium for the 60- to 90-minute ceremony.
The graduates then will exit the field and go to their cars; parents may sit inside the vehicles with the graduates. At approximately 4 p.m., friends, family and well wishers will drive past the students in their parked cars, honking their horns, cheering and shouting congratulations.
WATCH OR LISTEN: The event will be streamed live on video via the Detroit Lakes High School web page, and live audio will be broadcast on KDLM Radio. Updates will be posted on hs.dlschools.net.