Aitkin: Graduation at the drive-in

After close to an hour and a half of discussion May 18, the Aitkin School Board voted 4-3 to hold graduation at the football field May 29 in cars.

If the weather holds, graduates and their families will be able to drive onto the field and park for the graduation. Cars will be spaced out, and graduates will be able to drive up and “walk” to receive their diploma.

The long discussion featured one failed vote to hold graduation in person, outside and with social distancing guidelines and chairs, but held a week later on June 5.

School Board member Joe Ryan proposed that option, and the idea gained support from most of those in the audience.

However, that voted failed 4-3, and the school board went to a second vote, which was the May 29, “drive-in” graduation that Aitkin Superintendent Dan Stifter had proposed at the start of discussion.

A crowd of about 40 showed up to discuss graduation at the meeting.

With the approved motion, the vote also included the possibility of in-person, full graduation ceremonies after the state of Minnesota is completely reopened.

“Everyone here wishes that we weren’t in this situation,” said School Board President Cindi Hills. “I just want everyone to know and understand that we all wish that this was different.

“We recognize that the kids deserve to have the best opportunities that they can have, and that’s exactly what we want to do,” she added. “There are tragic things that can come out if this is an in-person situation. We have no way to control that.”

Much of the discussion was emotional, as both parents and seniors came in person to defend the Class of 2020’s right to a regular graduation ceremony.

The school board opened the discussion, with Stifter floating the proposal and various members weighing in. Among the comments made was that the students deserved an in-person ceremony, which led to Ryan’s proposal.

Board Member John Chute did speak up and point out that the district was honor-bound to follow the order from Gov. Tim Walz prohibiting in-person graduation.

Lisa Paulbeck, whose daughter Hannah read a prepared statement on behalf of the senior class, made an impassioned plea that the senior class deserved much more than it’s gotten after listing everything the senior class had already lost.

“Until you have stood outside the bedroom door of your child – your strong, confident, capable child – and listened to them cry at night because they lost their entire senior year, you don’t know,” Paulbeck said, choking up at times as she spoke. “These kids deserve a real ceremony.”

She told Stifter that while she respects his offer of the drive-in ceremony, it wasn’t enough.

“I can’t see the faces and the people,” she added. “It’s not the same. It’s not.”

Jennifer Cummings, who came to speak on behalf of her son (who was working), also defended the seniors’ rights to a regular ceremony.

“My understanding is that these are guidelines, not rules,” Cummings said about what Walz said about in-person graduations. “Aitkin has always been really proud in doing things their own way.”

Hannah Paulbeck, in her statement, said that of the 40 seniors who answered a survey, 38 were in favor of a regular graduation ceremony – even if it meant delaying it until later.

She said that most of the class is made up of students who have been together for the last 13 years.

“We’ve truly grown up together in every aspect,” Hannah Paulbeck said. “Our small size has allowed us to grow very close with one another.

“We’ve had so many opportunities stolen out of our grasp,” she added. “A graduation ceremony would be the last chance for us to come together.”

She left the board with a final thought – one of an Olympian training for 12 years to win a gold medal, but then not being able to have a medal ceremony and the country’s anthem played.

Ryan said he had heard from many parents who felt the same, and brought forth the motion to delay the ceremony a week until after the governor’s June 1 reopen date.

The issues surrounding Walz’s prohibition of large, in-person graduation ceremonies – and whether it was a rule or a guideline – led to most of the discussion back and forth during the meeting.

Hills, attending the meeting virtually, said that the district could be found liable in creating a potentially dangerous situation in a gathering.

“It opens up the door to us getting sued,” Hills said.

She and Stifter also pointed out that the district’s legal representation had advised not going against the governor’s guidelines.

That did not sit well with Cummings, who came back up to the microphone to say, “I’m sick of hearing about liability.”

There were also questions about asking the Department of Education if an in-person plan could be approved, and also asking health officials for advice.

Ryan then said that the governor had indicated the state would be open June 1, and that’s how the district should plan.

“I’m certain we can facilitate that, and still have a ceremony for these kids, and their families,” Ryan said. “For every person we listen to that’s trying to scare the you-know-what out of people – and there are plenty of those – there are those that are saying, ‘Time out here. Society’s being impacted.’

“For heaven’s sake, you guys got the brunt of it,” he added, nodding to the seniors in the audience. “We accept information from all kinds of sources, and then we have to make decisions.

“I think a decision to support graduation on a day after the governor has reopened Minnesota is safe and sensible,” he added.

However, city of Aitkin Police Chief Tim Catlin – in attendance and watching the discussion from the back of the auditorium – said that he had texted Booker Hodges – the state’s assistant commissioner of law enforcement with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

Catlin said he was told by Hodges to expect gatherings to possibly be expanded to between 25 and 50 people by June 1, but not enough for a full graduation ceremony.

Catlin had also spoken earlier in the meeting, saying that governmental meetings were exempt from the recommended limitations of the number of people allowed at a meeting, as long as they practice safe distancing and/or wear masks.

That led School Board Member Dennis Hasskamp to crack, “Maybe we should just schedule a school board meeting for May 29.”

After the decision was made at the meeting, students and parents gathered in the hallway to talk further.

By the next day, many were taking issue with the decision on social media. In sharing the initial Aitkin Independent Age short story on the decision, opinions were also offered.

“Still trying to wrap my head around this one. This is the best our school board could come up with? Parking in cars on the football field? School boards need to come with term limits because some of these people have been on far too long. I feel so bad for the seniors. Remember this come voting time, some members just need to go!!” wrote one parent.

Senior Alaina Chute, speaking at the meeting, however, did offer a different opinion.

“It seems like a lot of kids really feel different than I do,” she said. “I really like Mr. Stifter’s proposal. He’s so considerate that he’ll let us get out of the car and walk to get our diploma.”

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