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From drive-through to virtual, Harford schools have teams developing possibilities for June graduation ceremonies

Multiple teams within Harford County Public Schools are working to develop the best way to go forward with graduation ceremonies in early June, holding them in a way that ensures the health and safety of all participants and complies with state regulations on gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re really, really working hard to do what we can, to acknowledge this journey that our seniors have been on,” said Rachel Gauthier, vice president of the Harford County Board of Education.

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Gauthier opened a discussion session on commencement for the Class of 2020 during the school board’s business meeting Monday. Schools have been closed for in-person instruction since March 13 as state leaders work to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. Public gatherings statewide are limited to 10 people. Such restrictions have put a number of annual senior year milestones in jeopardy, including the canceled spring sports season, proms and graduations.

“We are very, very well aware of the fact that they have lost out on so much in their senior year experience,” Gauthier said.

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She emphasized that “the first thing we always have to say is, ‘Is it safe, are our kids safe, are our teachers safe?’ Safety is our very first priority.”

Even though restrictions and concerns about safety and legal compliance abound, school system officials are working with members of the senior class, school administrators and multiple community partners, such as law enforcement agencies, on finding some way to honor the graduates.

May 22, initially the scheduled start for commencement season, will now be the last day of class for seniors. High school graduations are scheduled for June 8 through June 12.

June 16 will be the last day for students in kindergarten through 11th grade, HCPS Superintendent Sean Bulson said.

Michael O’Brien, executive director of secondary school instruction and performance, discussed the several teams that have been formed related to the matter of graduations. Those teams are working on the best ways to hold virtual commencement ceremonies, or ideally ceremonies that have an in-person component.

Those ceremonies could be the “grocery store model,” where seniors can come to their schools, possibly walk across the stage and get their diploma.

Another option is a “drive-in” or “drive-through” option where families wait in a parking lot in their vehicles and the graduates get out when called and pick up their diploma. There have been discussions about having drive-through ceremonies in the parking lot of Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, according to Gauthier.

“While nobody loves the idea of virtual, and currently that’s not anybody’s first plan, it is certainly the backup plan for anything,” Gauthier said. “Because, what we have to abide by and nobody has a choice about, is the governor’s executive order.”

Any ceremony that happens must be in compliance with the orders issued by Gov. Larry Hogan to protect Marylanders from the novel coronavirus, such as the limits on public gatherings and requirements that people remain at home except for essential needs such as going to work, purchasing food or medical appointments.

“The hardest part about this is that we absolutely have to comply with the governor’s executive order, so any [graduation] plans that go outside of that are not something as a school system that I feel we can support,” Superintendent Sean Bulson said.

Team strategies

The main team is the contingency planning team facilitated by North Harford High School Principal Bryan Pawlicki, according to O’Brien. That team has been receiving feedback from multiple sources such as principals and assistant principals, as well as a task force of seniors from a number of Harford high schools. Christian Walker, the student representative on the school board and a senior at C. Milton Wright High School, has been coordinating that task force.

Walker said the student task force meets via Instragram group chat and has “frequent conversations” on graduations. He has worked to bring in not only seniors involved in school leadership roles, but “average students” to offer perspective about what they want, especially as the ceremony must be in sync with the times they have to report to the next chapter in their lives, whether that be in college, the military or the workforce.

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The student task force has been working to determine, “how do we bring all these different perspectives together to make something that works?” Walker said.

School system leaders will “continue seeking clarity” from the state, as “the final decisions for all things related to schools” thus far have been made by Karen B. Salmon, state superintendent of schools, Bulson said.

Graduations are “not a topic that she has given any answers to,” although there have been discussions on the matter with Salmon and among other local superintendents, Bulson noted.

“All districts are struggling with this on some level,” he said, noting that some of Maryland’s 24 public school districts have decided to go with virtual ceremonies while others are still planning and have not made final announcements “as we wait for the conditions to change” in terms of the coronavirus.

Making a final decision is “a potentially changing target,” since state restrictions have only become stricter through the present time, although there is a chance restrictions could ease depending on the state of the pandemic. Any easing of restrictions has not happened so far, though.

“We will continue looking at how we might design something, because I think we all share the interest in having as personal and special a graduation ceremony as we possibly can,” Bulson said.

‘Emotional toll’

School board members expressed their support for holding some type of commencement ceremony to honor the hard work seniors have put in to completing high school.

“Having a graduation ceremony that celebrates the students, that is participatory, is really the very least that we can give our senior class this year,” member Sonja Karwacki said.

Walker acknowledged the “emotional toll” the uncertainty has taken on many seniors, since they are so invested in their accomplishments and their work to graduate.

“Some of them have been struggling, on trying to remain as objective as possible in determining what is the most ideal scenario,” he said.

Walker stressed that having an in-person aspect for graduation is a priority for him and other seniors.

“My priority is doing everything I can, working with some of the great people we have in our school system, to make that happen,” he said.

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