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Back to Tradition: Austin, Pacelli finding roads back toward normal

It’s been an exceptionally trying year for Pacelli’s first-year principal Kane Malo thanks to COVID-19.

The day he took over the position, on March 16,2020, was the same day Gov. Tim Walz announced that schools across Minnesota would be shutting down and transferring to distance learning because of the pandemic.

“Learning to become an administrator and taking over a building is hard enough,” Kane said. “Add COVID to it and all the things added to this year … it’s been hard, but I’ve had a great time and will continue to have a great time.”

Across the street, his wife Andrea, who is principal of Austin High School, is experiencing many of the same ups and downs related to COVID, but soon AHS students as well as Pacelli students will also be enjoying celebrated high school milestones, even if it’s not exactly normal.

“I don’t know if it’s normal. There’s still a lot before we get to normal,” Andrea said. “I think there is hope. As we continue to move through, things will return to more normal. We really want to provide traditional things, but we also need to think about where we are at.”

It’s an opportunity the educational neighbors have been looking at returning to for a long time.

“That was really always our goal — to get back there and follow the upgraded guidance,” Kane said. “The governor opening back up as it has been has made it a little bit easier.”

Pacelli is celebrating its prom this weekend, joining for the first time with Lyle, in Lyle. However, perhaps more than COVID, the move to consolidate prom could be seen as more of expected evolution of the two schools.

“We play sports together, we work together,” Kane said. “We started talking about it probably back toward the end of March and how is the best way of going about it. “

Taya Kuchera is spun by her date Vicenc Rocamora during the Austin High School Prom grand march in 2019. Herald file photo

Graduation for Pacelli is going to be held at 7 p.m. on June 2, marking a return to St. Augustine’s Catholic Church for the ceremony.

The return comes after last year’s drive-in ceremony that saw graduates and their families watch from the confines of their vehicles, only coming up to get their diploma.

“It worked last year and we did really well last year, but we are excited to be going back to the church,” Kane said. “Going back to tradition.”

AHS is also on the way back to tradition with its graduation, but with different challenges: How to accommodate a much bigger class size?

“Graduation — a lot of planning has gone into thinking how this should look,” Andrea said. “We’ve considered lots of options and went through the whole gambit of what we thought we can do.”

Last year, volunteers working with the school, organized a massive parade for the graduates, winding its way through town and eventually driving past the school, where students picked up diplomas.

However, this year the district is planning a ceremony. There was some talk about having it outside at Wescott Athletic Complex, but with all the variables, it just became too much to plan.

Instead, the school decided on two ceremonies on June 4 in Knowlton Auditorium. One will be at 4 p.m. and the second at 7 p.m. This will allow for all the precautions people have become used to during the pandemic, including social distancing.

More importantly, it gives seniors their traditions.

“It’s still going to be a little bit different,” Andrea said. “We still have to consider social distancing, but it’s a much more traditional ceremony.”

There are also groups in the community planning other events that could mirror last year’s parade as well as a possible return to Project Graduation.

Prom is looking different as well, limited to just a grand march for juniors and seniors, followed by after prom, which will be limited to just seniors. The grand march will take place on the east lawn of the High School.

Administration and staff worked with students to plan prom, asking the students what they thought was most important.

“The basic details that we landed on is Saturday, May 15, when we will have a grand march. The theme is ‘Old Hollywood,’” Andrea said.

But there are rules including that students have to sign up for a block of time for their walk through the march. They also have to sign up for after prom activities, which will take place in the west parking lot of Wescott Athletic Complex and will include a movie and food trucks.

All of these come at the end of another very long school year, but both principals have seen a resilient staff and student body.

Pacelli has only had to close the school twice due to COVID, the second coming to an end this week when the secondary returns to classes on May 10.

“Pacelli has held up really well this year,” Kane said. “We’ve done a great job staying together, staying healthy. Our kids have enjoyed being able to be back in school on a full-time basis.”

AHS has also enjoyed a good track record, though they continue holding to a hybrid style of learning with the student body split up Mondays and Tuesdays and Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesday is reserved for a planning day for teachers.

“To have kids in your school for five days a week is just better,” Andrea said. “Our teachers have gotten really creative and looked at new ways to do things in a distance environment. The students have been really resilient. Some have loved the social distance environment, but they really want to be in school everyday with their peers and teachers.”