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Dr. George Addresses State Restrictions Behind the District's Graduation Decision (5.30.20)

Dear School Community,

On Tuesday, May 22, Governor Murphy made a statement that provided us with hope that we could hold an outdoor graduation ceremony.  We waited eagerly for the promised guidance, hoping that we could celebrate our graduating seniors in the traditional manner with an in-person ceremony on our football fields. Our students first heard bad news regarding the end of their senior year when schools closed in March, and again when the Governor announced that schools would remain closed through the end of the school year.  The announcement of the possibility of a traditional in-person ceremony gave us hope that our seniors could end their high school experience as we all wanted it to end.

On Tuesday, we received the official guidance from the NJDOE, and to say it was disappointing and frustrating is an understatement.  The guidance did not relax any requirements that were in place prior to the announcement.  In fact, it put further restrictions and requirements in place.  For example, we had planned for an opportunity for our seniors to have photos taken in caps and gowns at the school during June prior to the virtual graduation ceremony.  The new guidance prohibited such activities until July 6. 

Most notably, the new guidance stated that modified in-person commencement ceremonies must meet the relevant capacity limitation on in-person gatherings in place at the time of the ceremony.  Currently that limit is 25 individuals.  To clarify this requirement, Governor Murphy indicated that districts must determine the minimum number of staff and faculty necessary to facilitate commencement ceremonies and adjust attendance requirements accordingly.  The County Executive Superintendent, Dr. Richens further explained that this meant that all persons present at the ceremony, including students, families members, administration, and other individuals such as security must be counted in meeting the capacity limitations for social gatherings. 

There is a chance the Governor will relax his social distancing order, but the attendance limit will have to be increased tremendously and done in a time frame that would give us the ability to contract with vendors for items needed to hold a ceremony on our two high schools’ fields.  These would include renting stages, flooring to cover the fields, chairs, and sound systems to name a few. 

Based on the current attendance limit of 25 individuals and the number of graduates at both high schools, which is approximately 750 students, there would be a need to hold 80 to 90 separate ceremonies, with graduates only and no parents or other spectators in attendance.  As outlined above, all individuals present must be included in the count, including essential administrators, persons making the traditional speeches, individuals working the sound system, nurse, security, individuals needed for supervision of students, required facilities staff, and others.  There is also a chance that attendance limits will not be relaxed or that they will be reduced.  After a reduction in new COVID-19 cases and deaths last Saturday, there has been an increase in both this week.  Hopefully, this trend will reverse, as Governor Murphy is relying on data and science to make his decisions.  Although we would greatly appreciate relaxed restrictions on attendance limits for the sake of our graduates, we understand that the Governor is putting the safety of the residents of New Jersey first, as we put the safety of our school community as our first priority.

Making the decision to hold the virtual graduation ceremony on June 18 and award diplomas in-person beginning on July 6 was not an easy decision to come to.  It was an emotional realization that the chance of an in-person ceremony that resembles our traditional graduations is highly unlikely to occur due to the issues described above.  Our administrators and staff had hoped that the new guidelines would allow for an in-person ceremony, even if it meant holding several smaller ceremonies at each high school.  So, last week the principals announced that we would wait until August to hold an in-person event if possible.  After receipt of the new guidelines, however, we decided to award diplomas in-person in July, along with the June virtual graduation ceremony, to give some certainty and closure to our graduates.  They have been dealing with so much uncertainty since March.  Also, some of our graduates may be leaving for college in August, and will not have the opportunity to participate in an August event. 

We have provided this information on the constraints that we must operate under to hold an in-person event for our graduates so that you can understand why we made the decision to hold the virtual ceremony on June 18 and award diplomas in-person starting July 6.  We understand very well that this has been an emotional roller coaster for our graduates and their families.  We all want to provide the best experience for our graduates as they end their K-12 school experience.  We also want to provide some certainty and closure for them as they look toward new beginnings.  We believe our graduation plans provide both while meeting the requirements of the state and protecting the health and safety of our community.

Below are some of the key requirements outlined in the  NJDOE’s commencement ceremony guidelines that impacted our decision.  (The link above will take you to the full guidance document.)

  1. Prior to July 6, 2020, only ceremonies that take place virtually are permitted.
  2. Beginning July 6, 2020, drive-through/drive-in and modified in-person, outdoor ceremonies are permitted.
  3. Indoor ceremonies should not be considered.
  4. Modified in-person commencement ceremonies must:
    1. Take place outdoors (i.e., no indoor ceremonies allowed); and
    2. Meet the relevant capacity limitation on in-person gatherings in place at the time of the ceremony.
  5. Governor Murphy indicated that districts and institutions must determine the minimum number of staff and faculty necessary to facilitate commencement ceremonies and adjust attendance requirements accordingly.
  6. The County Executive Superintendent, Dr. Richens, clarified that all persons present at the ceremony, including students, families members, administration, and other individuals including security must be counted in meeting the capacity limitations for social gatherings.  On May 22, the number of persons permitted to gather outdoors was increased to 25 individuals.

Sincerely,

William O. George III, Ed. D.

Superintendent of Schools