Minnesotans owe it to each other to keep their distance during graduation season

Workers load new respirators into a van at a hospital in Italy at the beginning of the pandemic. Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images.

High school seniors and their families aren’t the only ones who will miss the big, traditional graduation ceremonies this year. Educators will, too.

We take pride in seeing how our students have grown into young adults ready for the next stages of their lives.

Personally, it was always a treat to attend graduation parties for students I had taught in elementary school. I know middle-school educators felt the same way.

However, Education Minnesota supports the recommendation of the Minnesota Departments of Health and Education for school districts to avoid conventional, large-scale ceremonies this year.

The joy of a typical graduation is outweighed by the terrible risks of spreading the virus that causes COVID-19, and the risks of this disease are not the same for all our students’ families.

No one really knows how much the slow re-opening of the economy will accelerate the spread of the disease by graduation season in late May and early June, but everything we do know about COVID-19 argues for avoiding large gatherings.

Small meetings with even a single infected person can spread the disease. Choir practices, funerals and church services have already triggered large outbreaks in the United Sates. 

While everyone knows the disease spreads through the air, we sometimes forget it can pass on contaminated surfaces. Touch a dirty doorknob, handrail or bathroom faucet and you may infect yourself by touching your face. 

Does anyone believe a crowd could get into a high school gym or sports stadium without touching anyone or anything? If choir practice spreads the disease, imagine a gathering of every 12th-grader in your community, with hugs and speeches.

It’s true the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions, including high blood pressure, tend to get sicker than children, but there’s plenty of new evidence suggesting children without symptoms can bring the virus home and spread it.

As educators, we’re also concerned about a strange new inflammatory syndrome that has sickened and even killed children in the United States and Europe. It attacks the heart and other organs. One teen survivor said his body felt like it was on fire, which reminds us how awful this disease is.

Even in mild cases, people suffer fever, chills, back pain, diarrhea, uncontrollable coughing, gasping for breath. It’s like having an anvil on your chest, one patient told the New York Times. Another compared the body pain to losing a fight to Mike Tyson.

It’s even worse for the people who need hospitalization. More than 700 Minnesotans have been admitted to intensive care units and state health officials are modeling a sharp increase through July; nearly 750 Minnesotans have already died.

Survivors of stays in the ICU, especially with COVID-19, can have kidney damage and higher risks for PTSD, depression, chronic anxiety and even symptoms consistent with a moderate brain injury. Search “post-intensive-care syndrome.” It’s horrible.

Then there’s the financial cost. A common seven-day stay in the ICU for COVID-19 can easily mean more than $70,000 in medical bills, a crippling debt for most families.

COVID-19 is a danger to every Minnesotan and our union believes no one should be forced or pressured to attend a graduation ceremony that puts themselves at increased risk of infection. The reward isn’t worth the risks and those risks change by race and how much money you have. 

This disease is simply more dangerous physically and financially for students who live in households with their grandparents, or with an adult with a pre-existing condition like heart disease, or who lives in a household without health insurance. In each case, decades of discrimination and racist policies in healthcare and housing have put families of color at higher risk for devastating outcomes than white families.

Cancelling traditional graduation ceremonies is one of the most difficult choices administrators have had to make this year. They were correct to follow the state guidance on this issue and those decisions were consistent with the educators’ principles of racial equity.

At Education Minnesota, we hope parents will understand and see these cancellations as extensions of how conscientious Minnesotans have always behaved. It’s not right to put our neighbor’s families at risk any more than it’s OK for them to put our families in danger.

Think of it this way: Minnesotans choose to slow down when driving in a blizzard because we want to protect ourselves, our families and other Minnesotans from the pain and expense of a crash. We expect other drivers to do the same for us.

It’s the same during this pandemic. We can avoid crowds, stay at home, wash our hands and wear a mask in public because this virus — which anyone can carry without symptoms — is more dangerous than speeding on an icy road. 

In tough times, Minnesotans have always made the choice to watch out for each other, no matter where we’re from or what we look like. It’s one of the things that makes our state great.

Let’s keep it up during this long winter of a pandemic and celebrate the accomplishments of our high school seniors, but only equitably and from a safe distance.