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Howard’s virtual graduations don’t rule out possibility of traditional commencements at later dates, officials say

The Howard County Public School System clarified its celebration plans for the Class of 2020 at Thursday night’s Board of Education meeting.

Three days after plans for virtual commencement ceremonies amid the coronavirus pandemic were announced, county school officials said the virtual celebrations in early June do not rule out the possibility of in-person graduations in the future.

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“We are planning to hold virtual graduation ceremonies during the window of June 1 through 9. However, I do want to clarify that a virtual celebration does not preclude us ... from also holding an in-person celebration in the future,” said Howard schools Superintendent Michael Martirano.

“In addition to the virtual ceremonies, every school will host an in-person celebration that will be scheduled at a later date once in-person events become feasible.”

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The original news release from the school system earlier this week didn’t explicitly say or rule out having in-person graduation ceremonies at later dates, stating, “Every school will host an in-person celebration, to be scheduled at a later date, to give seniors the opportunity to come together with their classmates.”

The release Monday laid out plans for online commencements between June 1 and 9, school-specific awards ceremonies administered virtually, future in-person celebrations for each high school and consideration for other celebrations.

“Our intention for each high school to hold at a later date — when safe — an in-person gathering to fulfill our commitment to our seniors and families will either be a traditional-style ceremony or another type of celebratory event at the school,” said Anissa Dennis, chief school management and instructional leadership officer.

“We are encouraging principals to work very closely with seniors and senior class committees to identify what the Class of 2020 in-person celebration will look like. We had mentioned we want all of our students in caps and gowns during the virtual celebration, and it was also mentioned that whatever type of in-person celebration ... that they would hopefully be able to wear their cap and gowns.”

After the school system made the announcement Monday afternoon, a high school senior in the county made an online petition to have an in-person graduation instead of a virtual one. The petition had more than 2,300 signatures as of Thursday night.

During the Board of Education meeting Thursday, three school board members — Vice Chairwoman Vicky Cutroneo, Christina Delmont-Small and Kirsten Coombs — questioned why the school system released the celebration plans without the board’s input.

Cutroneo said if the school system’s “messaging” on Monday had been clearer, it would have “allayed a lot of community concern.”

“This conversation is really helpful, but I think we should have had it before sending [the information] out to the community so we could provide rationale,” Cutroneo said.

“I am a little relieved we have this chance for an in-person ceremony because I didn’t want to give up that quickly. We took a long time to roll out our digital platforms and our digital learning, and we’re sort of the first ones to decide on graduations,” she added.

“Ms. Cutroneo,” Dennis responded, “we did share on Monday in that communication that there would be a 2020 in-person celebration at a later date.”

“I just think it’s because it didn’t say graduation,” Cutroneo said. “ ‘Celebration’ is not specific. People didn’t know if that was a senior ceremony or something else. That was part of the confusion — that ‘celebration’ doesn’t necessarily mean a graduation ceremony.”

For the virtual graduations, Dennis said the ceremonies will include commencement traditions like student and staff speeches, performances, recognition of graduates and turning of the tassels. Specific dates, times and other details for all of the celebration ceremonies for the Class of 2020 will be announced at later dates, officials said.

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During the regular meeting Thursday, Martirano also provided statistics regarding the school system’s distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, all 13 levels in the school system — kindergarten through 12th grade — have at least a 95% student participation rate in the online learning system. He added that more than 14,000 technological devices have been distributed to students, and the remaining ones will be shipped next week.

Also, as of Thursday, Martirano told the school board that nearly 475,000 meals have been provided to school system children at 14 different sites throughout the county.

Nearly five hours after the meeting started, Howard County school system chief administrative officer Jahantab Siddiqui presented the board members with information regarding the budget for fiscal 2021, which begins July 1.

Siddiqui opened with updates on federal relief money from the $2 trillion CARES Act, including a preliminary estimate of $2.95 million to the county school system from a $13.2 billion education relief fund, $56.8 million to the county government from the $150 billion coronavirus relief fund and additional money from other programs.

After upcoming work sessions and budget hearings in May, the County Council is set to approve its budget May 27. The school board then plans to adopt the fiscal 2021 budget June 18.

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