Drive-up graduation in Ely

Arena parking lot to be used for commencement; parade to follow

by Tom Coombe
Ely will follow the lead of numerous other school districts across the state and will hold a drive-up commencement ceremony.
Memorial High School’s Class of 2020 will gather separately, each in a vehicle with family members, for the May 30 event set for 7 p.m. in the parking lot of the Ely Arena. It will be followed by a graduation parade through town.
School administrators finalized plans this week for the event, after discussions that included engagement with many in the 45-member graduating class.
Students have been out of school since mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic, and restrictions on large gatherings shelved the traditional commencement ceremony at Washington Auditorium.
After alternative plans for an in-person graduation at Veterans Memorial Field were nixed earlier in the month by state officials, high school principal Megan Anderson said that the district would explore options for either a drive-up ceremony or virtual commencement.
When Anderson distributed caps and gowns to high school seniors last week, sentiment was overwhelming.
“Every single one of them said they would rather do a drive-through,” said Anderson. “It’s a little more personal than a virtual one.”
Tuesday, Anderson emailed graduates and their parents and outlined plans for the arena parking lot event.
Starting at 6:30 p.m., graduates and family members may park in an assigned space in the parking lot, with one vehicle per graduate.
The ceremony will begin at 7 p.m. and is planned to be purposely brief, as per guidance from the Minnesota Department of Education. It will be carried live on local radio station WELY and over the internet at www.wely.com, and school officials are also looking at the possibility of a live video stream.
Anderson plans to deliver a commencement address, present the class to superintendent Erik Erie and school board chairman Ray Marsnik, and each graduate will be called out to receive their diploma.
The graduate is expected to be sitting in the passenger side of the vehicle and will cross an empty stage to pick up their diploma and pose for a photo.
“There will be no shaking hands and we can’t physically pass kids their diplomas,“ said Anderson.
Once all graduates pass through the procession, Anderson will announce the class and the group will be encouraged to honk horns to celebrate.
The Ely Police Department will then lead the community’s first graduation parade, with vehicles carrying the graduates taking Harvey Street to Highway 1, then north to Sheridan Street and down Ely’s main drag to Babe’s Bait on the west end of town.
Anderson said she is encouraging people to line up in their vehicles along the parade route to recognize the graduates.
“There’s lot of room to park on the side and honk as the kids go by,” said Anderson.
Anderson told graduates “while it won’t look typical, it will indeed be a special day to remember.”
The graduation plan came together after weeks of uncertainty, and amid an unprecedented time in Ely’s school history.
“I looked at it as how do you make the best out of a difficult situation and try to make it personable for kids,” said Anderson.
A May 8 edict by the Minnesota Department of Education banned in-person, outdoor graduation ceremonies at baseball and football fields, but the decision was slammed by numerous Republican legislators.
A last-minute push to reverse the ruling fell short in the waning hours of Minnesota’s legislative session.
An amendment to a House education bill that would have allowed outdoor ceremonies failed on a largely party-line, 69-61 vote.
Rep. Rob Ecklund (DFL) voted no.