SPARTA, Mo. — In a year when many states are prohibiting in-person graduation ceremonies due to the coronavirus, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson is not only allowing them, but also spoke at one.
The Republican governor had a special connection to the indoor ceremony Thursday night at Sparta High School in southwestern Missouri: His granddaughter was among the 42 seniors receiving diplomas.
“Proud to be able to celebrate with my granddaughter as she graduated from Sparta High School tonight!” the governor wrote on his Facebook page.
Gov. Parson shared a photo of himself on stage with his arm around his granddaughter as she received her diploma.
Missouri reopened after the pandemic-forced shutdown on May 4, and Parson was among the few governors to give the go-ahead for large-scale gatherings, including graduation ceremonies.
Social distancing requirements remain in place, though.
The Reopening Missouri Show Me Strong Recovery Plan website states, "During this time, we should limit our activity and interactions and continue to maintain social distancing and practice good hygiene to protect our neighbors and ourselves."
Most of Missouri's 555 public school districts and public charter schools are choosing other options such as drive-thru graduations or virtual ceremonies. Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokeswoman Mallory McGowin said some districts are postponing graduation until the summer in hopes of having in-person ceremonies then.
Sparta is in Christian County, where 20 people have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the state health department. Superintendent Rocky Valentine said the district would take several precautions to protect against the spread of the disease.
Each graduating senior was allowed to invite up to 10 people, meaning the approximately 2,000-seat gym would be, at most, at around 25% capacity. Families sat together, but were spaced throughout the gym from others.
Photos shared on Gov. Parson’s Facebook page showed families sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the stands of the gym.
The school board chairman handed diplomas to students as they came forward. Masks or other face protection were not required.
Parson and his wife, Teresa, presented the diploma to their granddaughter, who hugged each of them.
Parson spoke briefly to Sparta's graduates and their guests, talking to them about the importance of hard work, the American Dream and making their own path in the world.
"My hopes are in you," he said.
On his Facebook page, the governor wrote the following message:
“We understand the heartbreak many seniors are going through. While this time may not be what you envisioned, there is still much to be celebrated.
“I challenge each graduate not to let COVID-19 define their future. Know that anything is possible if you have the will to try, and the faith to believe you can.
“We are cheering for each and every one of you, and we want to recognize and celebrate your accomplishments. Congratulations class of 2020!”
You can see a county-by-county breakdown of confirmed cases in Missouri with our interactive map below: