Michigan Senate votes to exempt graduations from virus order

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Seniors from Spain Park High School stand on a baseball field at a socially distanced graduation ceremony in Hoover, Ala., Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Health officials say usual graduation ceremonies could endanger the public health by promoting the spread of disease. But school officials say they’re using social distancing guidelines and abiding by state health rules. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A split Michigan Senate 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 chamber supported the bill that was sent to the GOP-led House, while all but one Democrat opposed it.

Under the state health department’s order, 1,000 people generally can be in outdoor stadiums with a fixed seating capacity of up to 10,000 — 1,500 if it is a bigger arena. At indoor arenas, the limit is 375 — or 750 if the fixed seating capacity is more than 10,000.

In a change made late Tuesday, the state said outdoor gatherings can be bigger than 1,000 to 1,500 attendees if they do not exceed 20% of capacity or 20 people per 1,000 square feet, whichever is greater, as long as there is distancing and masking.

“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 the 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 any student, staff, volunteer or other attendee 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 like proms and year-end parties.

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

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