While Pine River-Backus students and families won't be crowding the stands in the big gym for the class of 2020 on Friday, May 29, it'll likely be a commencement that everyone remembers.

The school district waited until Gov. Tim Walz and the Minnesota Department of Education issued guidelines May 8 before confirming commencement plans for the graduating seniors.

"For the most part, what has been allowed and what is in the works for planning here is more of a drive-in type graduation, meaning students and families would come in cars and we would limit that number as much as we can," PR-B High School Principal Chris Halverson said. "There would only be graduates that would be out of their cars when they are called to get their diplomas. We'll have a stage where we're hoping to have a board member. We'll still have the speeches. We haven't gotten them yet, but we still have a valedictorian and salutatorian piece with a short introduction from myself. And I think Miss (Mary) Sigan will announce names and then announce scholarships."

Graduation will be at 7 p.m. Friday, May 29, in the Pine River-Backus High School parking lot. Valedictorians are Emma Kristine Barchus and Hannah Marie Nordlund. Anna Katheryn Felthous is salutatorian.

This will also be an opportunity to catch up with another event that was canceled.

"We didn't get to do our scholarship award banquet so we will combine it with our graduation," Halverson said. "I think it will be kind of cool. As well as students coming up to get their stuff, she will talk about their scholarships. If they didn't win a scholarship, we hope to share something nice from their family about what makes them a nice person or graduate."

Halverson said they are working to still maintain social distancing guidelines, having only 10 people out of their cars and on stage at once. After seniors are given their diplomas they will return to their vehicles. Some plans are still in the making.

Halverson is meeting with students regularly to attempt to make this event special for them in spite of all the challenges. Among other things, seniors will for once be encouraged and allowed to decorate the tops of their hats and their cars. Halverson hopes the event will take just over an hour, though that will be hard to guess.

"Then they will do a parade," Halverson said. "We don't have a route for them, but they want to drive out of here in a safe manner and maybe drive through town."

Immediate family will be encouraged to come to the parking lot in front of the high school entrance where they can watch the commencement from their cars. There is space for approximately 120 carefully parked vehicles. The event will then be streamed live to devices and broadcast over the radio. There are currently two radio stations offering to broadcast. Halverson said they will decide in the next week.

Halverson said while the limitations for the event have been challenging, students have worked with him to come up with ideas rather than just getting down.

"It's difficult to find a blend that works for people. The traditional form is what makes it special for people. Anywhere we can find a little piece to personalize it is our angle," Halverson said. "These kids have been awesome visiting with me and finding understanding. I'm impressed how they've addressed this."

Space for cars is limited to immediate family, though others may be able to park along the student parade route to follow. Details on the parade are forthcoming.

Honoring area seniors

In honor of Pine River-Backus seniors, signs bearing their names and photos have been placed along County Road 42 and Murray Avenue in Pine River, both roads adjacent to the school, so that this year's seniors will get some attention for the end of the school year.

The photos are printed on corrugated plastic boards and staked to the ground on wire frames. Once they are done being displayed, they may be keepsakes for those seniors.

Lena Richards came up with the idea while working on photos she took for senior Brady Raph. When Raph's mother, Dannette, suggested she talk to the school, it became a bigger project, and now all of this year's seniors are on display near the school.

Photographers who handled senior photos - such as Moments Treasured, Randee Dwire of Made for You Photography, Studio 64 and others - were generous enough to allow permission for the photo reprints. Some of the photos bear their logos.

"I'm excited. I do a lot for Pine River like photos for sports," Richards said. "It was nice that everyone was on board for it. It was wonderful and I was happy to do it for the class of 2020. It's the year they don't have graduation. I'm a PR-B lifer. With no graduation it's just kind of a cool memory for them."

In Pequot Lakes, Lonesome Cottage is sponsoring photos of graduating seniors on the electronic billboard on the company's property along Highway 371.

"We are so proud of them and wanted to show their smiling faces to the world. We have a template and as soon as the school is ready we will feature the photos, two grads at a time," said Jill Andersen, of Lonesome Cottage. "We try to support the school district anyway we can and thought this would be something we could do to give the seniors a little hug."

In Pine River, Bites Grill and Bar has donated $25 gift cards to all Pine River-Backus seniors in honor of their special day.

And the Pine River Bakery's effort to get an 8-inch cake for every Pine River-Backus 2020 graduate will come to fruition thanks to generous donations from the community. The last of the 57 cakes were paid for May 8, barely a week after owners Julie and John Sigafus announced the plan.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.