Michigan Legislature OKs exempting graduations from virus order

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LANSING — A split Michigan Legislature voted Wednesday to exempt high school graduation ceremonies from the state’s order that restricts crowd sizes due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Republicans who control the Senate and House supported the bills that lawmakers could finalize next week, while all but a few Democrats opposed them.

Under the state health department’s order, outdoor stadiums with enhanced protocols can operate at 20% capacity. Otherwise, 1,000 people can be in outdoor arenas with a fixed seating capacity of up to 10,000 — 1,500 if it is a bigger venue — as long as they do not surpass 50% occupancy. At indoor arenas, the limit is 375, or 750 if the seating capacity is more than 10,000.

“Most local school boards have done a good job of mitigating the risk of COVID. We should trust them to safely manage their own graduations,” said a bill sponsor, Republican Sen. Jim Runestad of Oakland County’s White Lake Township. The risk of the coronavirus spreading outdoors is low, he said, contending that students and their families deserve “this last irreplaceable high school memory.”

But Democratic Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. of East Lansing called the legislation “utter nonsense.” Nobody is trying to prevent commencements, he said.

Sen. Dayna Polehanki, a Livonia Democrat, said K-12 districts are working to plan graduation ceremonies in accordance with health guidance and “what works for their communities.” She unsuccessfully tried to tie the bill to education legislation that would again pause a law allowing third-graders to be held back due to low test scores, given many students have learned online this academic year.

Last week, the state Department of Health and Human Services quietly issued guidance about high school end-of-the-year events such as graduations and proms. Citing a statewide surge in coronavirus cases that is subsiding, it recommended virtual events but said the guidance would be reviewed and updated as the epidemiology evolves.

The state recommended that in-person events be held outside — not indoors — and that schools require all students, staff, volunteers and other attendees to test negative within 24 or 72 hours of the event, depending on the type of test. The use of cohorts or pods was encouraged for social events such as proms and year-end parties.

The state asked school officials to consider shortening the length of events and scheduling students in staggered time slots.

A spokesman for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, said in-person graduations are allowed.

“Our administration continues to encourage families and school districts to hold ceremonies to honor students’ incredible achievements while ensuring the safety of all attendees,” Bobby Leddy said. “We wish all of our graduates the best of luck in future endeavors.”

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