GOP wants to exempt Michigan graduation ceremonies from COVID orders
LANSING — Graduation season in Michigan is around the corner and, after an academic year interrupted by the coronavirus, Luke Babington wants to have a normal ceremony with his friends.
Babington, a senior at Walled Lake Northern High School in Oakland County, told lawmakers on Tuesday this would only be possible if Michigan rescinds all restrictions regarding graduation events.
“If there are no limits placed on graduation, it would allow the class of 2021 to have the opportunity to end the last two tough years of high school on a good note,” Babington told the House Education Committee.
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“We have missed out on so many senior traditions and a traditional ceremony would be a wonderful way to celebrate our hard work.”
On April 27, the state issued guidelines for graduations that limit occupancy at commencement ceremonies to 50 percent of venues’ capacity.
A bill making its way through the Legislature would exempt graduation ceremonies from those rules. Sponsor Rep. Ann Bollin, R-Brighton, said school districts and parents should make decisions regarding gatherings, not the state.
“It is an independent decision that every family has to make,” Bollin said. “I think that people will act responsibly.”
Bollin’s bill, which passed the House Education Committee on Tuesday, would apply to public and private high schools honoring the 2020 or 2021 classes during the 2020-21 school year.
The bill came the same day the state health department issued a new rule, which goes into effect Thursday, that generally drops Michigan's mask rule for outdoor gatherings of 100 or fewer people — a move that will make it easier for parents to host backyard graduation parties but one that would likely have little effect on schools' commencement ceremonies.
In recent weeks, coronavirus cases have declined rapidly in Michigan, reaching their lowest point in six weeks on Monday.
But the decrease coincides with a slackening demand for vaccines statewide, as about 50 percent of adult residents have received at least one dose. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has said she won’t fully lift restrictions until two weeks after the rate hits 70 percent.
Whitmer did not respond to requests for comment from Bridge Michigan about the proposal, which is opposed by fellow Democrats, the Michigan Association of School Boards, and the Michigan Education Association.
“Keeping our students, educators and communities safe isn’t a political talking point – it must be our top priority as a state,” Doug Pratt, the director of public affairs at the teachers union, wrote to Bridge in an email.
“Piecemeal dismantling of public health orders meant to protect everyone’s health is irresponsible, especially when school districts are already making plans to honor graduates in ways that continue to mitigate (the) spread of COVID-19.”
But Kenneth Gutman, superintendent of the Walled Lake Consolidated School District, said districts have done a good job mitigating the risk of COVID-19 and should be trusted to do so as well with graduations.
“I have faith that school leaders and educators can create and offer safe graduation experiences not only to the students who have worked so hard to earn this honor, but also to their families,” Gutman said.
The Walled Lake Consolidated School District plans to hold the graduation ceremonies of its three high schools in a big parking lot, where people can pull in in their cars and see their loved ones graduate.
This form of celebrating is similar to how other schools and universities have honored students.
Over the weekend, Michigan State University, for instance, hosted a series of outdoor, small graduation ceremonies, while the University of Michigan opened Michigan Stadium so socially distanced graduates could watch a virtual commencement ceremony.
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