The high school buildings of Carroll County Public Schools hosted students for the first time in months when members of the Class of 2020 arrived for their graduations, beginning Monday, June 1.
In some ways, it was like any other graduation — taking photos with family, receiving a diploma on the stage with the principal, seeing some teachers again.
But for some parents and students, the ways that graduation proceedings were modified to comply with coronavirus-related restrictions meant little satisfaction and some frustration, capping an unusual school year when students missed out on cherished traditions and experiences.
As of Wednesday, Eric King had seen students walk across the stage at Winters Mill, Manchester Valley, Liberty, Century and South Carroll high schools. Francis Scott Key and Westminster would start their processions of students Friday, stretching into the next week.
The director of high schools was tasked with leading the planning group for the modified ceremonies. He heard from “hundreds and hundreds” of people and remotely met with a group of students representing every school.
In his visits this week, King said, "I believe when this started, parents felt like this was going to be some generic, bare-bones approach. And everyone has just gone above and beyond to make these kids feel special because we all understand all the traditional things that they didn’t get to do this year,” he said.
Schools rolled out decorations, backdrops for family photos and music. Liberty handed out personalized posters with students’ senior photos. Winters Mill had wrist bands so students could carry a piece of school pride with them. Manchester Valley laid out a red carpet.
Graduations have been a hot topic for weeks, before and after the school system presented its plan to the public at a Board of Education meeting May 20.
One South Carroll student started a petition to allow graduations to be held in a large area outdoors, with social distancing in effect. The petition had gathered more than 1,300 signatures as of Friday evening, gaining more even after the alternative graduation exercises had begun.
Maryland delegates representing District 5 penned a letter to county Health Officer Ed Singer asking for a modified outdoor graduation.
“While counties can choose to require additional measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we cannot go against the Governor’s Executive Orders," Singer wrote in an email, when asked for his response to the letter. "The current order restricts gatherings to 10 or fewer people, and graduations are not listed as exempt from this restriction.”
At the same board meeting where staff presented their plan, members of the Board of Education directed the school system’s attorney to write to the Governor’s Office of Legal Counsel for interpretive guidance. The plan was to include in that communication specific information, including the capacity of stadiums and class sizes, to ask if an outdoor ceremony in a stadium could be possible.
As of June 3, they had not received a reply.
When the letter was sent, staff said they would need to move forward with the modified graduations as planned in order to hold them before students scattered to various obligations.
If the school system does receive a response from the state, is there any action CCPS would consider taking?
“That’s a tough question to answer,” King said in a Wednesday interview. When he spoke with Singer, the health officer thought the next stage of reopening might allow gatherings of 50 people or fewer — generally smaller than the size of a graduating class.
King said the first priority students expressed was to walk across the stage — they didn’t want a virtual graduation. But the second request was to be able to celebrate with all of their friends, many of whom have known one another since kindergarten.
“And that was the theme of many of the emails, was we want all of these kids want to be together,” King said. “But we knew that that may not happen. That happening at any point this summer was probably impossible.”
As of 5 p.m. Friday, June 5, Maryland moved into “Phase 2” of Gov. Larry Hogan’s reopening plan. But “social, community, recreational, leisure, and sporting gatherings and events of more than 10 people” remain prohibited, the order says.
CCPS wrote in an email to families, “CCPS is doing all that we are lawfully able to do under the existing restrictions to recognize our seniors through this modified graduation ceremony with accommodated schedules and times.”
Some students ran into an issue when they learned that the modified graduations fell during their already-planned senior week activities. Some had already spent money on deposits.
Francis Scott Key senior Karson Fahey said a group of students reached out to the Board of Education after talking with one another in a group chat. The school system responded and worked with the hired videographers to find two makeup dates that fell outside of senior week.
Fahey said it was important to students who would have had to chose one milestone over the other and gave them the chance to do both.
“We really deserve this week as it is the last we could spend together,” he said.
Darby McHugh, parent of a Century senior, was among a group of parents who asked for ways that the ceremonies could be more “communal and meaningful."
McHugh said she recognized that those definitions had to change this year, and didn’t want to cut down the hard work and planning that went into the graduation ceremonies that have been held. She also said that in the face of a pandemic and widespread unrest it was not the most important problem. But many parents she spoke to felt that restrictions and double standards got in the way of viable options.
One option they asked about was a later graduation in hopes that more restrictions would be lifted on the sizes of gatherings by that point.
“Although there will be an issue of some not being able to attend, the needs of the many would be met,” McHugh wrote in one email to CCPS.
King said that in consulting with students, he asked them “How late is too late?" and they said about July 15. Some students would be starting boot camp after enlisting in the military. Other families, who had waited until after graduation, would be moving away from the area. Others would leave town for seasonal jobs, especially in beach areas like Ocean City where amenities like the boardwalk were already open to visitors.
King said some have suggested a ceremony in August or the next school year, but their feelings were that, “Once the senior class has gone there, they’re gone. That moment, you can’t capture that again.”
Carroll Christian Schools held their graduation in person in Westminster on May 29, with social distancing and mask restrictions in place. Although she didn’t begrudge them their celebration, McHugh said she and hundreds of other parents wondered why CCPS couldn’t do something similar.
Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley said that the requirements for the Carroll Christian ceremony came from the governor’s Executive Order 20-05-27-0, which addresses religious facilities.
“The Maryland State Police does not grant ‘permission,’ but rather refers individuals and organizations to the Governor’s Executive Order and related interpretive guidance provided by the Governor’s Office of Legal Counsel,” he wrote in an email. “The current Governor’s Executive Order allows for 50 percent capacity of religious facilities. It did not determine what had to happen in the religious facility, as long as social distance requirements were met.”
The school system’s plan was required to follow the guidelines limiting gatherings to 10 people or less, even in the school’s auditoriums. Each graduate would be allowed to bring four guests.
Avril Ellis’ family of six was one who had to pick and choose who could take part.
Ellis said she could understand the limits when it is a spacing issue like with graduations at McDaniel College. But this year, she said, there was no a spacing issue. She wished rules for immediate family could have been relaxed.
From what she understood, she said their principal and others suggested other ideas, but the state requirements were limiting.
Her graduating senior is her oldest child, she said, and she wanted all of his siblings to be able to see his example. To limit the family to four, one of her sons waited outside. They took photos after the graduation, but he wasn’t included in the professional photos taken inside the auditorium.
“Now my pictures are special but not as special as they could be,” she said.
McHugh said families were not able to ask a videographer or the staff member reading names to leave the auditorium in favor of an extra family member.
King acknowledged and empathized with the families affected in that way, but said the school system had to stick to the approved plan, which required 10 or less people in the room.
One of their concerns was keeping staff safe, he said. “The families and the kids are coming in and they’re gone and in a short period of time, but the principals of these schools are standing on that stage for many days, as hundreds of people walk past them.”
He said the schools allowed more than four guests to accompany the graduates to take photos and be part of the celebrations outside of the activities in the auditorium.
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McHugh said one of her frustrations was that in Maryland, it feels like what is essential to reopening is determined by the economy. She said her family questioned the message the state is sending about the value of education when graduation isn’t classified as essential.
She wrote in a letter to thebBoard and other CCPS leaders, “Graduation is much more than a transactional exercise for most of these students. It’s a cultural rite of passage that offers closure and meaning to what has essentially been the students’ entire life up that point.”
For the future
Looking ahead, schools plan to welcome back alumni for events such as games, tournaments, celebrations and dances as soon as those events can occur again. Many teachers and staff are still waiting for the chance to shake graduates’ hands or give them a hug and say congratulations, King said.
As a principal until last year and a friend and neighbor of graduates, he said, he’s included in that sentiment.
And classes still maintain the majority of the funds they raised over four years that were meant to go toward proms and senior picnics and cruises. These could be used for celebrations and alumni gatherings in the future.
“Nothing replicates having everybody together at McDaniel. But, you know, under the circumstances, we tried to hit as many of the important aspects for a graduate as we could,” King said.
“The last opportunity to do something is huge,” he continued. “You can’t replace that, and you can’t put a value on that, and I we all feel horrible for all the things the kids didn’t get to do.”