Though state officials recently announced in-person graduation ceremonies would be prohibited due to the COVID-19 crisis, Gov. Phil Murphy offered some hope traditional commencements could happen at some point during this summer.
In-person graduation events are currently prohibited, after Col. Patrick J. Callahan, state police superintendent, said commencements could only be held virtually and “wave parades” would not be allowed if it causes people to gather in one location.
During his May 19 media briefing, the governor said he’s hopeful in-person ceremonies could be held as long as New Jersey’s infection rates and hospitalizations continue to decline.
Parents and graduating seniors, the governor said, “have a right to have hope that we could still find a way – and they do have a right to have hope.”
“I have that same hope. I’ve got nothing to report, but I have that same hope,” he said. “But, I would add to that, bear with us – we’re trying to figure this one out and I would hope sooner than later.”
The governor recently announced a multi-stage plan to reopen the state and said outdoor activities will be among the first activities allowed. New Jersey is presently in Stage One of Murphy’s plan, which includes reopening state parks and beaches, and allowing non-essential retail businesses to offer curbside pickup services.
Beaches vs. Graduations
On May 19, when asked why “a day at the beach” with social distancing is permitted but a graduation ceremony on a football field keeping six feet apart from others is not, the governor said, “We are firmly in Stage One and we are war-gaming a whole lot of stuff.”
Outdoor-related activities “where we can have some management of capacity and social distancing (are) high on our list of considerations,” he said.
“We’re able to consider right now a pretty long list of potential steps over a period of time measured between days and weeks. We are chopping through this,” Murphy said. “We’ll take the steps as fast as we can responsibly take them, but not so fast that we in some way risk reignition of a health concern.
“If there’s hope out there that in some form folks at some point, not crazy distant future, can gather for graduations—if you’ve got that hope I have that hope as well.”
Growing Calls To Reconsider
With New Jersey’s stay-at-home orders still in place, school districts have been trying to figure out ways to celebrate students whose final year in high school has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At high schools, the final few months of the school year are typically filled with milestones, such as prom and senior trips, and culminate in the finale rite of passage—graduation.
But due to the coronavirus crisis, students in New Jersey missed out on those coming-of-age traditions as K-12 schools were closed as part of an effort to combat the outbreak.
Besides honoring graduates virtually next month, many districts said they are committed to scheduling an in-person ceremony once gatherings are deemed lawful and safe.
But, as New Jersey continues to slowly reopen, calls are growing to allow high schools to host some sort of face coverings, socially distant, in-person graduation ceremony outdoors.
On May 19, Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean urged Murphy to allow in-person, outdoor graduations because the Class of 2020 deserves “the opportunity to be recognized and celebrated for their achievements.”
Kean Urging Ceremonies
“A virtual commencement ceremony just isn’t the same as wearing a cap and gown with friends and classmates,” said Kean, pointing out the U.S. Air Force Academy recently hosted an in-person ceremony for more than 900 graduating cadets who were seated eight feet apart,
“We know graduation ceremonies can be held safely,” he said. “The governor should relent on this prohibition. It’s the least we can do for our graduating seniors.”
Several online petitions have also been launched by parents, high school seniors and other community members in support of celebrating graduates with an in-person, socially distanced ceremony.
During a recent press briefing, Murphy likened 2020 to “graduating from high school in 1944 – June of ’44, probably less than a month after D-Day.”
“It’s in that sort of realm. Acknowledging how unusual this is. how much respect we still have for the accomplishment even though we can’t gather in the way that we would otherwise gather. It’s a big deal. This is a big deal. Certainly high school, but I would even say a middle school, an elementary school, certainly a college,” the governor said.