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Harford schools hoping to have in-person graduation ceremonies at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen

Harford County Public Schools is planning to have outdoor graduation ceremonies at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen this year.

Superintendent Sean Bulson, during a virtual meeting with the Harford County Delegation last week, said the school system has been in discussions about using the stadium, which is the county’s largest outdoor venue and is home to the Aberdeen IronBirds baseball team.

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Jillian Lader, a spokesperson for the school system, said Wednesday that Ripken Stadium was being considered for graduation ceremonies and there would be more discussion on the matter at Monday’s Board of Education meeting.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan recently announced earlier this month that large indoor and outdoor venues, such as Ripken Stadium, could reopen at 50% capacity. Health experts have generally deemed outdoor venues safer for limiting the spread of COVID-19 than indoor spaces.

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For baseball games, Ripken Stadium has a listed capacity of about 6,300 seats. It’s unclear how capacity numbers would be calculated, with the current restrictions, to include graduates and school system staff on the field along with family members in the stands for a graduation ceremony.

Bulson told delegation members he believes they would be able to have ceremonies for all the county’s high schools at the stadium, although noted Bel Air High is “pretty big, so we’ll bump up against capacity numbers there.”

He does expect some frustration over the limited number of tickets available to families of graduates, as is seemingly the case even during a normal school year, and noted that having ceremonies outdoors presents a new set of challenges.

“Scary thing with outdoors, whether you’re doing a wedding, a graduation or whatever, you’ve got to think about the weather,” Bulson said.

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Because of that, graduation ceremonies will likely be scheduled earlier than usual to build in potential weather delays, he said.

Graduation dates listed on the school system’s website span May 28 to June 4 this year. The dates were approved in January 2020, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. School board policy dictates that the calendar must be approved eight months prior to the start of the school year, Lader said.

The school system may also have to schedule graduations around IronBirds home games. The team’s season begins May 4, but its first home games aren’t until May 18-23. The team travels the following week, returning to Aberdeen June 1-6, and then is on the road again for two weeks, until June 22.

Last year, in the early stages of the pandemic, the school system devised a plan to hold individual, in-person ceremonies for graduating seniors in their respective high school’s auditorium, with a limited number of family on hand to observe and take photos.

Since 2013, the majority of HCPS graduation ceremonies have been held at the APGFCU Arena on the Harford Community College campus in Bel Air. The arena has capacity for about 3,200 with floor seating, according to HCC’s website.

Last week, the school system announced it would be moving forward with plans for in-person graduations, but would be canceling junior and senior proms. In a message to parents, school officials said they were opting to focus on academic and athletic accomplishments, rather than social events.

Del. Rick Impallaria took Bulson to task over the cancellation of proms during the delegation meeting last week, criticizing the school system for allowing guidance that was always changing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to make decisions about reopening and cancellations.

“The CDC has been all over the place and is constantly proving themselves wrong, constantly changing their mind,” Impallaria, a Republican representing Harford and Baltimore counties, said.

Bulson countered that asking students to physically distance at prom would impractical.

“If you’ve ever chaperoned a school dance — I don’t know how prom aligns with any of the safety measures,” Bulson said.

He added that the school system has made a decision to prioritize academics over social activities.

“Do we have priorities or is everything a priority? Because everything we do contributes to the risk, contributes to the disruptions, contributes to our ability to deliver on other things,” Bulson said. “Our ability to make sure that we’re keeping the students in schools for four days is the priority and we’re doing it before most districts in the state are doing it. And we’re doing it before our metrics, according to the CDC, support it. But we believe we can do it safely and that’s a priority.

“If we try to add every other thing we do on top of that, it’s going to make it harder for us to deliver the core thing, which is the instruction, and I think the graduation is something we really want to prioritize.”

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