EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – New Jersey schools are upending plans for graduation following word from Gov. Phil Murphy this week that the state will allow in-person, socially-distanced commencement ceremonies.
For many, it was the news they had hoped to hear, but it also threw a wrench into plans for alternative and virtual graduations that had been weeks in the making due to stay-at-home orders brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
"We have a team working on putting together in-person graduation," said Paterson Schools Superintendent Eileen Shafer, whose district includes 14 high school programs and about 1,500 seniors. "We’re going to ensure social distancing. Everyone will have a mask or face covering. We’re going to make this work for the kids. That’s what it's all about."
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Murphy announced Tuesday that the state will allow outdoor graduation ceremonies starting July 6. Late on Wednesday, the state Education Department issued more detailed guidelines, including a requirement that events be held outdoors, that families stay 6 feet apart and that districts "strongly encourage" attendees to wear face coverings.
The department didn't set a limit for the number of people allowed to attend, saying only that districts should comply with whatever state restrictions are in place at the time of the ceremony. Districts can limit the size of the audience or even ban guests altogether, the department said.
Pressure on Gov. Murphy
Parents, school officials and teens had been rallying for New Jersey to ease restrictions for the class of 2020, who have been out of school since at least March 18 because of the health crisis. The state was hit hard by the virus: It ranks second to neighboring New York in both the number of coronavirus deaths and hospitalizations, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Pressure to hold graduations intensified after the state reopened parks, boardwalks and beaches with social distancing requirements, but didn't act on graduations.
Dario Sforza, superintendent of Henry P. Becton Regional School District in East Rutherford, tweeted at Murphy last week, showing how a graduation ceremony could be done safely at the high school's football fields with wider distances between people than those at reopened beaches.
"This is more than a graduation," Sforza said. "This will be the first time our school community comes together after four months of a really challenging time for all."
Sforza noted the losses that district families had suffered during the pandemic. Javiera “Javi” Rodriguez, a child study team case manager at the school, died April 1 of COVID-19 complications. Other school families and employees lost siblings and grandparents. Sforza's grandfather died of COVID-19 related causes.
"That was most of the most challenging part of all this, that families affected couldn't even mourn the right way and have closure," Sforza said.
"It's the same for students," he added. "They have not had closure. They've endured so much and overcame so much. We're proud of them and we want to celebrate them."
Changing graduation plans
Becton Regional's tentative plan includes designated spots on the football field, 10 to 12 feet apart, for people to sit. Between one and three family members would be allowed at commencement. Security would be tight and the ceremony would be kept short to limit the need for restrooms.
Paterson plans to hold graduations at Bauerle Field and at Buckley Park. The district expects to have 10 to 12 ceremonies in July, with the largest hosting 177 students, Shafer said.
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A committee will determine how many guests are allowed and require 6-foot distances between people in chairs and in stands. Facilities will be sanitized between each commencement ceremony, the superintendent said.
Paterson will still hold a virtual ceremony on June 19 as planned, so students and families who don't want to attend in person can still be honored.
"Unfortunately, the kids graduating in 2020 didn’t have a prom, they didn’t have a senior trip and they almost didn’t have an in-person graduation," Shafer said. "My heart goes out to them. I know how important it is for kids. I know how important it is for families to be in the audience watching their children graduate."
At Manchester Regional High School in Haledon, officials already had a plan for in-person graduation in the hopes that the governor would allow it.
A virtual ceremony "wasn't even on the table," Superintendent Miguel Hernandez said. The district also had a backup plan to hold a ceremony on Thanksgiving weekend, when college freshmen are home. Officials grew more hopeful about their chances for a summer service as the number of COVID-19 cases leveled off.
"Now, we are just waiting to see what the guidelines are for outdoor graduation so we can finalize our plans," he said. "We felt it was important for our kids and families."