Officials at Mitchell Technical College, Dakota Wesleyan University and the Mitchell School District are in the early stages of planning for 2021 graduation ceremonies.

And according to officials at the three schools, a return to traditional, live and in-person commencement services is preferred over cancelations and virtual ceremonies if conditions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic are favorable.

Scott Fossum, dean of student success at Mitchell Technical College, said the school is aiming for a return to a live graduation ceremony in 2021 after students voted to forgo the traditional commencement event in 2020.

In fact, Fossum said MTC would feature three separate graduation ceremonies this year if everything goes according to plan.

“Instead of one ceremony at 5 p.m., we’re going to break it down to three ceremonies to make it easier to socially distance and to keep the crowd at 50 percent of capacity,” Fossum said.

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The three ceremonies are tentatively scheduled 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. on May 7 at the Corn Palace. Breaking down the graduating class of roughly 400 students and their family members will better allow for social distancing, Fossum said, and a crew will clean and disinfect the facility between commencements.

Graduating students will be allotted a number of tickets to distribute to friends and family, Fossum said, which will keep attendance down. He said the discussion on whether to require masks at the events is being debated by school officials. A decision on that will come down the road as the big day approaches.

“That’s something that’s to be determined. We’re still requiring them on campus, and at that point we’ll see what the city requirements are, what the Corn Palace requirements are and the whole shape of affairs in Davison County,” Fossum said. “Right now it’s probably too early to call.”

The latest numbers from MTC indicate one active case of COVID-19 among students.

Mitchell School District

The Mitchell School District took a different approach to graduation in 2020. Instead of hosting the traditional live in-person festivities at the Corn Palace, the district opted instead for a virtual graduation ceremony held at the Performing Arts Center. Students were pre-recorded receiving their diplomas, as were performances from musical clubs and other groups, and the results were streamed out to viewers on graduation day.

But this year will hopefully be different, said Joe Graves, superintendent of the Mitchell School District.

“Right now we are still planning on commencement as we have traditionally had it,” Graves said.

Discussions on specifics for the event will continue as graduation, which is scheduled for May 23, approaches. While new cases of COVID-19 are waning as the school year enters February, the state of the pandemic in three months will play a role in what form commencement takes.

“We don’t know where we’re going to be at. It’s only the first week of February and graduation is the last week of May,” Graves said. “We’re assuming we’ll be getting it in like we almost always have, and we’ll make adjustments as we get closer.”

Graves hopes the event can return to the Corn Palace, where it has been held and seen large crowds gather for the annual tradition. There will likely be mask requirements, possible crowd size limitations and social distancing guidelines that will have to be followed by those in attendance.

The option of a virtual ceremony is still in play, Graves said, after the district organized a successful streaming commencement last year. But a live ceremony will always be preferred over the alternatives.

“I think it went remarkably well because of a great deal of work by people like Joe Childs to make sure everybody had a great video experience. It was well-organized with the help of a lot of teachers,” Graves said. “I think it served its purpose well. If it has to happen, we’ll make it the best experience we can, but hopefully we can have it with people present.”

Discussions on the event are ongoing between Graves and Childs, principal of Mitchell High School, along with plans for the 2021 prom. Like many proms and other school districts, the 2020 prom was canceled out of safety concerns. Graves hopes that can change this year.

“That’s coming up the fastest, and that’s a big event for our juniors and seniors. We need to figure out how we can have one while making sure everyone is safe and focused on the kids,” Graves said.

The Mitchell School District reported one active case of COVID-19 in its latest weekly statistics report on the disease.

Dakota Wesleyan University

Students at the Dakota Wesleyan University graduation commencement in September at the Corn Palace got to experience a live graduation event last year. And while the event was deemed a success, school officials plan to review options for the 2021 ceremony.

“At this time we’re moving forward with plans to have commencement in the spring, but the logistics have not been finalized yet,” said Jan Larson, director of marketing and communications for DWU.

The event last year was held at its traditional location — the Corn Palace — after being postponed from May to September. And while it was live with students, some family members and speakers all together under one roof, masks were required and social distancing measures set up to maintain a solid level of safety for everyone in attendance.

Like the event at Mitchell High School, the event was streamed to those who were unable to attend or decided against attending for safety reasons.

Details that have yet to be worked out include audience attendance and how extensive it will be, Larson said. It is hoped members of the general public will be able to attend, but that will depend on the state of the pandemic when the event is set to be held on May 9.

Fortunately, the Corn Palace offers the floor space to socially distance effectively, she said.

“For last year, we had very limited ticketing available and spaced the graduates out six feet apart. It was open to family members, and each graduate had so many tickets they could give out,” Larson said. “The Corn Palace offers us the opportunity to move forward. In years past, the Corn Palace would be packed and filled with everyone. I can remember years where there were only seats open way at the top.”

Larson said school officials will discuss options as the event date approaches and make plans accordingly in terms of safety for students, attendees and the general public.

“Everything is subject to change and the logistics have not been finalized and we’ll keep the public updated as we solidify those plans,” Larson said.

Active COVID-19 cases in South Dakota continued on a downward trajectory for the 11th consecutive day on Tuesday, while hospitalizations saw a slight uptick for the second day in a row. During the past 11 days, active cases have decreased by nearly 1,500, with 2,600 reported by the South Dakota Department of Health on Tuesday, Feb. 2. There were 118 new cases recorded, with 20.8% of 524 new tests returning positive.

After seeing a decline over the weekend, current hospitalizations increased by five to 131 on Tuesday.