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Howard County private schools hold drive-thru ceremonies instead of going virtual for graduations

The decision by the Howard County Public School System to host virtual graduation ceremonies amid the coronavirus pandemic upset many in the community.

Students started a petition that gathered more than 2,000 signatures in two days, while many parents emailed the Board of Education, which some members responded to by criticizing the school system for not having public discussion on the topic and being more creative.

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While the county’s public schools streamed prerecorded commencement ceremonies online, finishing Tuesday, the two private schools in Howard County were able to have in-person ceremonies last week, albeit not in the traditional way.

On June 1, Chapelgate Christian Academy in Marriottsville hosted a drive-thru graduation, while Glenelg Country School in Ellicott City hosted a graduation “car parade” on June 5.

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The common thread for the private schools, in contrast to the public schools, is smaller class sizes. Glenelg Country graduated 71 seniors this year and Chapelgate only 52, compared to an average of about 360 at each of the 12 Howard County public high schools.

“I understand how hard it is for a big school system to be nimble,” said Melissa Barrett, Chapelgate’s head of school. “With a smaller school, we know our families and we don’t have the same equity issues as a public school system has and we’re able to pivot quicker. We wouldn’t have been able to do this if we had a graduating class of 400. There was no way for the public schools to win. They were in a no-win situation.”

Along with smaller class sizes comes a more personal touch at the graduations. With fewer students, the teachers and administrators are more likely to have a relationship with more students than at the larger public schools.

“I think for sure that having fewer students helps,” said Danielle Peterson, director of marketing and communications at Glenelg Country. “That allows us to work with our students and families and really listen to the ideas that they have and what their preferences are.”

Chapelgate’s ceremony last week featured a drive-thru ceremony during which students and their families could drive up to an outdoor stage, take a picture and receive their diploma along with other mementos.

Barrett said the school’s parents were passionate about having an in-person graduation, and when Chapelgate first announced the drive-thru celebration, some parents weren’t happy.

“We asked them to trust us, and we didn’t reveal a lot of detail because we wanted it to be a surprise,” Barrett said.

Normally, Chapelgate’s commencement is “very formal,” Barrett said. While the drive-thru graduation was far different than the school’s typical ceremony, it was in some ways better, Barrett said.

“In some ways we gained more than we lost,” she said. “It wasn’t traditional, but we had two kids walk across the stage with their dog, and they were able to have their whole families up onstage and take a picture with them. That would never be able to happen at our normal graduation.”

Glenelg Country’s graduation, meanwhile, welcomed students and families for a graduation car parade. Each car was given a “graduation box,” which contained caps and gowns, cords, awards, certificates, class photos, food and decorations for the cars.

“This is obviously something we’ve never done before, but we wanted to make sure it was fun and unique for our students,” Peterson said.

After parking at one of the fields on campus, the cars then started on the parade route, with speakers playing “Pomp and Circumstance” and teachers cheering and holding signs for each student. At the end of the parade, students got out of their cars, received their diplomas and then took pictures.

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“We wanted to make sure everyone remained safe and healthy but also memorable for our students so they could have that event be a grand sendoff for them,” Peterson said. “Everyone in the administration felt that doing something virtual didn’t have the same feel. We are a small school, a small community. To do something in person, instead of online, was a priority for us.”

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