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State can’t delay guidance on graduations

Walking across the graduation stage and the formalities of that ceremony are an important gateway to adulthood. Last year, the pandemic threw those events awry and threaten to again, if the state’s restrictions stay in place.

Schools and universities have no clear guidance on what Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her Health Department will allow, even though the end of the school year is only weeks away and plans must be made soon.

Commencement and other end-of-the-year activities are too important for high school and college students and their families to have to just play it by ear. The state must offer concrete guidelines on how to safely conduct commencements and other events that won’t run afoul of current edicts.

Yet the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which is currently setting epidemic orders impacting how residents gather and interact, doesn’t have that guidance ready to go. Instead, the department is pointing to current restrictions for indoor and outdoor gatherings, and that order expires April 19.

Those rules state that non-residential indoor gatherings with more than 25 people are “prohibited.” Outdoor gatherings are acceptable at non-residential venues “where 300 or fewer persons are gathered.”

And of course, social distancing and masking must still be followed.

“We are working with schools on guidance for end-of-the-year events,” Bob Wheaton, a spokesman for the Health Department, said in an email. “The presence of more infectious variants, such as the B 1.1.7 variant, threatens our progress in control of the epidemic and MDHHS will be monitoring data closely. Our goal is to reengage while reducing public health risk, which is why we move slowly to maintain progress and momentum with thoughtful public health measures.”

Yet Martin Ackley, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, says his department hasn’t heard much from the MDHHS.

“To my knowledge, we have not received any specific guidance from DHHS on end-of-year school events,” he noted in an email. “There have just been the periodic updates to DHHS’s safety protocols on distancing and indoor and outdoor group size allowances.”

Other school leaders are in the dark, too, including Brian Broderick, the head of Michigan Association of Nonpublic Schools. He says most of his member schools have been in-person during the school year, but he “hasn’t heard anything beyond the current gathering rules for indoor and outdoor functions.”

Broderick says private school officials are also wondering how they should handle activities like prom.

Similarly, the state’s public universities are approaching commencement ceremonies in a variety of ways, from canceling them to holding several smaller events instead of one larger one.

For instance, Michigan State University has said it will hold more than 50 outdoor ceremonies with limited attendance.

And the University of Michigan is sticking with an earlier decision to have a virtual ceremony, despite protests from parents and students who wanted an in-person ceremony.

With so much uncertainty about what the state will allow, however, you can’t blame schools for taking the safe route and doing away with the in-person events altogether.

The state needs to clarify what schools can do. These young people deserve a celebration with their family and friends for this once-in-a-lifetime occasion.

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