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Howard school board raises concerns about virtual graduations, which may cost more than traditional ceremonies

Howard County Board of Education members raised concerns at Thursday’s meeting about the school system’s upcoming virtual graduation ceremonies before eventually passing the contract that will allow them to occur.

Several members on May 14 questioned a number of aspects regarding the video celebrations, including the lack of input from the board into the decision, the price of the contract and the decision to make the ceremonies pre-recorded.

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The board passed the contract, 5-2, with Frederick-based Showcall Inc. for up to $180,000 for the virtual celebrations with Christina Delmont-Small and Vicky Cutroneo voting against.

Prior to the vote, Delmont-Small questioned why there wasn’t a public discussion about the virtual ceremonies prior to the school system’s decision to have them because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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“I think what is getting lost is that there was no public discussion about this that the board was able to have,” Delmont-Small said. “We were unable to have public discussion about this when we were in administrative meetings, and that would’ve been a violation of the Open Meetings Act.”

The total cost of the project has yet to be determined due to the uncertain level of customization necessary for the videos. Students have been asked to submit 5- to 10-second videos of themselves in their caps and gowns, which will be incorporated into the ceremonies.

The price tag could be more than the $119,000 the school system originally budgeted for traditional graduation ceremonies at Merriweather Post Pavilion, according to the school system Director of Purchasing Doug Pindell.

“If $119,000 was budgeted for this, and we’re talking about going up to $180,000, it doesn’t sound like there will be anything left for an in-person celebration at a later time,” said school board member Kirsten Coombs. “I’m also distressed by the fact that we got a survey back from the seniors that they didn’t want a virtual ceremony, so why are we spending all this? It doesn’t sound like the community is into this idea.”

The school system originally announced its plans on April 27 to hold virtual graduation ceremonies in early June due to the pandemic, with additional plans for online senior awards events and future in-person celebrations or commencements.

Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said May 14 that decisions were made with safety as the main factor, adding that the school system had to balance the coronavirus pandemic, the large number of graduates Howard County will have (approximately 4,200), and orders from the governor and the county executive into its calculations.

“I understand the concerns from all of our board members and our community on this, but I feel as if we have no other options on this right now,” Martirano said.

“It’s been very difficult planning an event that I know isn’t what our seniors want,” added Anissa Dennis, chief school management and instructional leadership officer. “I don’t think there would be any event other than the traditional ceremony that our students would want. We held out as long as we could, and the clock was ticking. We wanted to celebrate our seniors and all they’ve done and do it now.”

The decision in late April received criticism by some in the community, including a petition created by a high school senior that generated more than 2,000 signatures in three days. Coombs said at the meeting she believes the board has been “shut out” of the graduation ceremony process.

“I agree with [Delmont-Small] that a lot of this was done without consulting us, and it feels like our hands are tied,” she said.

“I have to respectfully disagree with the comment of being closed out of this process,” Martirano quickly responded. “I will go back and send the document to the board of the number of times we’ve brought this to the board, and I’ll let it stand at that. I do not believe you’ve been shut out of this process.”

Delmont-Small said she’s “concerned” the school system didn’t come up with a “creative way” to have graduation celebrations like some in Maryland and around the country have. Small Maryland counties like Garrett are holding in-person graduations, while the Harford County school system announced last week that graduating seniors will have an “in-person, individual commencement experience” at their high schools, Harford Superintendent Sean Bulson said.

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“The emphasis hasn’t been on how we can do something special but rather why we can’t do it,” Delmont-Small said.

Martirano said many of the counties holding in-person ceremonies are smaller, while larger counties like Montgomery, Prince George’s and Frederick are all doing virtual ceremonies similar to Howard’s.

Cutroneo questioned why the ceremony was being pre-recorded and not being done live or partially live.

“We’re calling it a virtual ceremony, and it’s not virtual,” she said.

Community Superintendent Pat Saunderson said the Howard school system researched other virtual ceremonies around the country and thought it would be safer to have a pre-recorded celebration. Some livestreamed graduations in recent weeks have been hacked, including Oklahoma City University’s graduation that became a national story after the hacker broadcast racist messages.

School board member Chao Wu ended the discussion with the hope that in-person graduation ceremonies will be held at a later date.

“I think this is a difficult situation. We don’t want our seniors to have nothing to celebrate, and we don’t know what the future will look like,” Wu said.

“This is what we’re going to give to them in the moment, but if anything changes in the future, we definitely want to promote some in-person celebration while keeping safety in the front of our minds.”

Correction: A previous edition of this article incorrectly quoted board member Jen Mallo. The quote “I agree with [Delmont-Small] that a lot of this was done without consulting us, and it feels like our hands are tied" has been correctly attributed to board member Kirsten Coombs.

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