Outdoor in-person graduation ceremonies, from middle school through college, that adhere to social distancing guidelines, can be conducted statewide starting July 6, Gov. Phil Murphy said on Tuesday.
The announcement came in the wake of escalating pressure from state legislators to permit in-person graduations and less than two weeks after representatives of three Toms River students filed a lawsuit against the governor, claiming his executive orders preventing them from graduating in public violate their constitutional rights.
Murphy said his administration would provide specific guidelines on Wednesday to which all schools must adhere in conducting commencement exercises.
Graduation ceremonies held prior to July 6 must be virtual or vehicle-based, according to guidelines Murphy and the State Department of Education outlined earlier this month.
Traditional commencement exercises for public high schools statewide were originally scheduled for next month, while some private high schools across New Jersey had their graduation ceremonies slated for this month.
The governor said schools with large graduating classes may be required to hold multiple commencement exercises at different times and even on different days to ensure proper social distancing.
Last week, Murphy relaxed some restrictions on social gatherings in time for Memorial Day weekend, increasing the number of people who could congregate outdoors from 10 to 25.
Murphy said on Tuesday that guidance regarding the maximum number of graduation ceremony participants and attendees is forthcoming, adding the health and safety of all is paramount.
Murphy has repeatedly stated during his daily COVID-19 press briefings that science and facts will determine a timeline for the methodical reopening of New Jersey, including how schools would be permitted to hold commencement exercises.
The governor said graduation ceremonies with safety protocols will be allowed July 6 and beyond as long as public health data continues to reflect that the spread of the novel coronavirus across the state is abating.
Murphy said the selection of July 6 as a date for permitting graduations was not arbitrary, stating his administration feels "strongly that if we keep making progress we are going to be in a different place" at that time.
The number of hospitalizations, patients in intensive care and deaths continue to trend significantly downward from their peak, although New Jersey still ranks second nationally with 155,764 COVID-19 cases and 11,191 coronavirus-related deaths.
As of Tuesday, the state reported 703 new cases and 54 more deaths over the previous 24 hours, data that the holiday weekend may have skewed. As of Monday night, more than 2,723 patients remained hospitalized with the coronavirus, 786 of them in intensive or critical care.
Public school districts and administrators from private schools will be permitted to make their own decisions regarding the conducting of virtual, drive-by or in-person commencement exercises, provided they are in compliance with Murphy’s regulations.
Last week, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees released guidance from Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeffrey C. Riley that permits high schools to conduct in-person commencement exercises outdoors starting on July 19.
Those guidelines, not to be confused with the specific directives Murphy's administration will unveil on Wednesday, may provide insight into some of the restrictions to which New Jersey schools may have to adhere in order to conduct graduations.
Anne Rivera, the principal at St. Joseph High School in Metuchen, whose senior class was scheduled to graduate on May 15, postponed the ceremony in the hopes that commencement exercises could be conducted in person.
“This is what we were hopeful for, the opportunity to meet with our kids in person and to be able to hand them their diplomas live as opposed to virtually,” Rivera said. “The reason why we hesitated and took our time to make a decision is because we recognized graduation is such a milestone and momentous occasion for our students and their families, and we wanted to do that in a way that really defined the moment and reflected the importance of it.”
Robert Zega, superintendent of Woodbridge Township Public Schools, one of the state’s largest districts with three high schools and nearly 14,000 students, said his administration engaged many seniors throughout the township, all of who expressed the sentiment that they wanted to partake in a safe in-person graduation ceremony.
“We talked to the graduates and that was really what they wanted,” Zega said of in-person ceremonies, noting his school district has been preparing alternative graduation plans.
“We went from virtual to drive-in, but the whole time they wanted to be on the (high school football) field with their classmates. These poor kids haven’t seen each other for months now. It will be nice to get this one last ceremony.”
South Plainfield Superintendent of Schools Noreen Lishak said she has purposefully been withholding the announcement of graduation plans for her district’s high school with the understanding that the pandemic has created a fluid situation in which Murphy is predicating decisions on the input of medical experts and daily-changing data with public health being paramount.
“We intend to release our plan as of June 1,” said Lishak, noting South Plainfield has long been prepared to host a virtual, drive-by or in-person graduation for its high school’s nearly 250 seniors, depending on what guidance school districts received from Murphy and the State Departments of Health and Education.
“We understand it’s an ever-changing situation and the governor continues to monitor what’s happening in terms of slowing down the virus.”
Murphy ordered all schools statewide closed on March 18. Earlier this month, the governor announced schools would not reopen and that remote instruction would continue for the remainder of the academic year. The decision led to the cancellation or postponement of several milestone events including senior award ceremonies, class trips and proms.
Last week, Sen. Tom Kean Jr., R-21, citing numerous online petitions that high school seniors from across the state initiated in support of in-person graduations, called on Murphy to permit such ceremonies.
“We know graduation ceremonies can be held safely,” Kean said. “The governor should relent on this prohibition. It’s the least we can do for our graduating seniors.”
Days later, Sen. Troy Singleton, D-7, issued a statement in support of outdoor high school graduations with health and safety guidelines.
“I am confident our school districts can accommodate socially-distanced, outdoor ceremonies that are appropriate and deserving recognitions of this occasion,” Singleton said. “Our schools have proven they are innovative and able to adapt during this pandemic. Their high school graduation ceremonies would be yet another example of that.”
Earlier this month, New Jersey State Police Superintendent Col. Patrick Callahan, in a letter to the State Department of Education and all public and nonpublic schools, wrote that “in the best interest of the health and safety of the public, in-person ceremonies, including graduations,” should be “cancelled or postponed” until Murphy’s stay-at-home executive order has been amended.
A day later, Murphy said during his May 13 COVID-19 press briefing that vehicle-based graduation ceremonies were permissible, provided the driver and any passengers remained in their respective cars with vehicles at least six-feet apart. If vehicles were less than six-feet apart, windows, sunroofs and convertible tops had to be closed.
Edison High School Principal Charles Ross said he and his staff have been prepared “like the Minutemen of the Colonial" era to mobilize for an in-person commencement exercise for a graduating class of approximately 500 seniors.
“Our kids, our families (were) holding hope for a real graduation, which is one in-person, so that they can come together with their peers and celebrate their accomplishments and this milestone,” Ross said.