‘I think it’s unfair to take these opportunities away’

A proposal by Gloucester County school superintendents to hold in-person graduations has gained the support of Senate President Steve Sweeney

Williamstown High School 2019 graduates decorated their caps for their commencement ceremony last year. The Class of 2020 is holding out hope to have a ceremony of their own after Gloucester County superintendents penned a letter to state officials last week to allow for in-person graduations with social distancing and safety measures in place.

Even with the end of the school year quickly approaching and social distancing measures still in effect due to COVID-19, school districts in Gloucester County are not giving up on the idea of hosting in-person graduation ceremonies for the class of 2020.

Gloucester County’s 14 public high schools sent a joint letter to New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney and New Jersey Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin on May 12, asking for their assistance to advocate for the seniors and allow them to “participate in some form of an in-person graduation ceremony.” The letter attracted Sweeney’s attention, who said on Wednesday he fully supported the superintendents’ position and intends to appeal to Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration to permit graduation ceremonies.

Page one of Gloucester County superintendents’ letter to the state legislature.

“I’m in complete agreement,” Sweeney said about the letter. “I think it’s unfair to take these opportunities away. We should allow each high school to figure out how to conduct it.”

The two-page letter, signed by the 14 superintendents representing each of Gloucester County’s public high schools, acknowledged the New Jersey Department of Education issued guidance on how to hold virtual graduation ceremonies, but goes on to say it is not enough.

“…these recommendations fall far short of honoring the senior members of the class of 2020 in appropriate and traditional ways,” the letter said.“All of the superintendents wanted to do something for their students,” Deptford Township Superintendent Arthur Dietz said. “They thought it was critical. This is a milestone for our students.”

Page two of Gloucester County superintendents’ letter to the state legislature.

The letter was drafted shortly after Gloucester County’s superintendents held a weekly, virtual roundtable discussion on Tuesday, May 12. The meeting came four days after guidance from the New Jersey Department of Education stated no sort of in-person graduation was permitted to be held, including in a drive-thru format. Even after there was some clarification from Murphy on May 11 permitting events such as car parades and drive-thrus, the consensus among the superintendents was they wanted to take action.

Kingsway Regional School District superintendent Jim Lavender said much of the frustration from the school communities has come since New Jersey allowed for outdoor locations such as parks, golf courses, boardwalks and beaches to open. Lavender said many students in his district began questioning why, if those locations were open to the public, a graduation ceremony couldn’t be held outdoors, with the proper social distancing guidelines and health precautions in place.

“We all agree with and support Gov. Murphy’s efforts to keep our communities safe,” Lavender said. “Our issue largely is … hypocrisy with what is and is not opening.

“(Students) are asking us, why can’t I stand on my football field, have my name called out and receive my high school diploma,” Lavender continued.

In the letter, the districts requested the ability to conduct in-person ceremonies abiding with the social distancing measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The letter cites the ceremony the United States Air Force Academy conducted in April where cadets walked at least six feet away from one another during the procession and seats on the field were spaced out by six feet. The academy did not permit members of the public to attend the ceremony in-person, instead livestreaming it on YouTube.

Lavender said if Kingsway and other area high schools were permitted to hold in-person ceremonies, similar precautions would be taken, including maintaining a minimum of six feet between graduates and all participants in the ceremony, limiting the number of people in attendance, requiring everyone to wear a face masks, and prohibiting people from shaking hands, hugging or engaging in other physical contact.

“We’re confident that we can manage a program that would keep our students safe,” Lavender said.

Preparing for a possible in-person graduation means trying to figure out how to plan for an event without knowing if it could be held, or what restrictions will be in place. At Clearview Regional High School, superintendent John Horchak stated in an email the district’s “strong preference” is for an in-person graduation and school officials are making plans for different ways an event could take place. Horchak emphasized Clearview will comply with any executive orders in place.

Clearview’s Class of 2019 tosses their caps into the air at their commencement ceremony last year.

“We genuinely believe that, if allowed, we can create an environment that is safe in regards to social distancing, while being rewarding and relevant for our seniors and their families,” Horchak stated. “We have discussed multiple scenarios for conducting a traditional (on the stadium field) graduation, where students are on the field and a defined number of guests (most likely two, to be determined) would be in the stadium in defined areas consistent with the social distancing guidelines. All of the various plans include working collaboratively with our Harrison Township Police Department, the county office of emergency management, and the county prosecutor’s office.  We would rely on their guidance and support to ensure the desired outcome is achieved.  We have also discussed moving the graduation into July if that will empower us to hold an in-person graduation.”

Many Gloucester County high schools are keeping the window open for a possible in-person ceremony while also moving forward with producing a virtual graduation. School officials in Deptford received a lot of positive publicity from the community and media after it announced it would have 125 “mini-graduations” where seniors would be invited to come in, two at a time, and walk across the stage in their own commencement ceremony.

“We’re going to follow social distancing,” said Sal Randazzo, coordinator of communications for Deptford Township School District. “Everyone will have masks. All of the guidelines will be followed.”

Diplomas sit on a table at Deptford Township High School’s 2019 graduation.

Additionally, Deptford school officials have indicated they’re planning to host some sort of graduation event for the seniors on the regularly-scheduled June 17 graduation date, though there are no details on the event due to the uncertainty of what types of limitations will be in place at that time.

“We are in constant contact with the state and the department of education and working closely with Mayor (Paul) Medany,” Randazzo said.

In Williamstown, the Monroe Township Board of Education discussed similarly having a virtual graduation at its first meeting in May. The proposed virtual graduation would have students come into school and walk across the stage on the football field in their cap and gown. The district would film each student walking in addition to all of the graduation speeches to put together in one video.

In an email, Monroe Township Superintendent Thomas Coleman said the district is also making alternate plans for an in-person graduation in cooperation with local township officials. Like Deptford, Coleman said the district is not officially discussing details due to the ever-changing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If the governor should permit such, we are currently in the process of planning an in- person graduation in coordination with our township officials that would be compliant with the COVID recommendations similarly consistent with what is being done at supermarkets, home improvement stores, beaches and the boardwalk … meaning wearing of masks, keeping six feet apart, etc.,” Coleman said.

Washington Township is also preparing to film a virtual graduation where the senior class, one at a time, will come into the high school’s performing arts center, don their cap and gown, and walk across the stage to receive their diploma. Like other schools, Washington Township will broadcast the video on the originally scheduled graduation night.

Washington Township principal Jonathan Strout said the school is not stopping there, however. The high school has pinpointed tentative dates in late July and early August to hold postponed spring events, if permitted by the state government.

“We have (tentative dates) to have a senior prom, a live graduation, Mr. Washington Township, a dance concert, a yearbook signing party,” Strout said. “We’ve developed a pretty robust calendar.”

Four days after releasing the letter, Lavender spoke with representatives from Sweneey’s office and was encouraged to hear he would be considering the proposal in the letter.  Sweeney said he was impressed with the proposal and feels each individual school can come up with a safe and responsible plan to hold a ceremony.

“I think (Lavender’s) dead on,” Sweeney said. “I think the (Murphy) administration has to look at this.”

“It’s not right for these young people to be denied this after 12 years of hard work,” Sweeney later added.

As of press time, New Jersey state officials have not indicated in-person graduations will be permitted. Gov. Phil Murphy touched on the topic of graduation briefly during his daily COVID-19 press conferences early this week, though he did not offer any details or a timeline of if or when graduations would be permitted.

“Should students, should moms and dads hold out hope that we can somehow have some form of an in-person commencement? The answer is they should have hope,” Murphy said during Monday’s press briefing. “I have that same hope.”

Lavender said Gloucester County’s efforts are beginning to garner attention in the region. Schools in Atlantic, Camden, Ocean and Salem counties have reached out to lend their support and join the effort in hopes the state’s stance on graduation will change in the near future.

“We hope that (Murphy) considers what we have to say on this issue,” Lavender said.

“We’re just asking for consideration on this issue.”