TRENTON, NJ — New Jersey school districts will be permitted to hold outdoor graduation ceremonies with social distancing beginning in July, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Tuesday.
Murphy made the announcement on Twitter, saying the ceremonies, which can begin July 6, must “comply with social distancing – ensuring the health and safety of all in attendance.”
The order permitting outdoor graduation ceremonies applies to middle school and high school graduations, as well as colleges/universities, a news release from Murphy’s office said Tuesday. Specific guidance would be released by the state Department of Education and the Secretary of Higher Education on Wednesday.
That guidance could mean multiple graduation ceremonies at different times or spread across multiple days for instances where graduating classes are “too large to accommodate a crowd within the restrictions in place for outdoor gatherings,” Murphy said.
“Our goal is to ensure our students are given the sendoffs they richly deserve,” Murphy said. “We want them to celebrate and to be celebrated by their families friends and educators who helped get them there, but do so safely.”
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TO THE CLASS OF 2020: Beginning July 6th, schools WILL have the opportunity to hold outdoor graduation ceremonies that comply with social distancing – ensuring the health and safety of all in attendance. pic.twitter.com/MqwVtPjZh4
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) May 26, 2020
“New Jersey is taking a wise, sensible approach toward graduation ceremonies,” Education Commissioner Lamont O. Repollet said later Tuesday. “This plan balances our desire to recognize the accomplishments of our graduating students, while providing the necessary safeguards for their safety, as well as the safety of their friends, families and school staff.”
“We owe it to New Jersey’s students to celebrate their drive to overcome tremendous odds and complete their degrees,”said Zakiya Smith Ellis, Secretary of Higher Education.
The guidance will include the following requirements, state officials said Tuesday:
Must take place on or after July 6;
Must take place outdoors or be drive-in/drive-through (no indoor ceremonies will be allowed);
Must adhere to the relevant capacity limitation in place at the time of the ceremony (this may require districts to hold multiple ceremonies held over a period of time to ensure capacity restrictions are not exceeded);
Districts and institutions must determine the minimum number of staff and faculty necessary to facilitate commencement ceremonies and adjust attendance requirements accordingly;
Caps, gowns, diplomas, and other materials must be mailed to individual student homes, sent electronically where possible, or otherwise distributed in a manner that complies with social distancing guidelines;
All activities must be coordinated in consultation with municipal officials, such as the local Office of Emergency Management, local law enforcement, first responders, and local health officials.
The state will stipulate commencement ceremonies must be held only for graduation from middle school or high school, and not for other ceremonies that mark promotion from one grade to the next.
Districts and institutions of higher education can continue to opt for virtual or drive-through/drive-in ceremonies held in accordance with Executive Order 142. Only virtual ceremonies can be held prior to July 6, state officials said.
The decision comes New Jersey continues to slowly ease restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic, an easing that has resulted from a continual slowing of hospitalizations and infection rates from the virus.
On Friday, Murphy announced an increase in the size of outdoor gatherings to 25 people during his daily coronavirus briefing. Read more: Gov. Murphy Allows Bigger Gatherings, More Coronavirus Reopenings
“We want to get this right,” Murphy said at the time. “This is a big gathering and it has to be done right.”
Graduations, especially high school graduations, have been a hot topic across the country. While some have argued that holding any form of in-person ceremony could help spread the virus, dozens of parents and graduating seniors have created petitions and called on their governors and health commissioners to allow them.
Many school districts have scheduled virtual graduation ceremonies with the promise that they would hold in-person events as soon as the state permitted them to be held.
The issue has stirred debate in New Jersey since April, when Murphy first extended the closure of schools across the state in the ongoing fight to slow the spread of the coronavirus. He closed schools for the remainder of the academic year on May 2.
Soon after, the issuance of a letter from New Jersey State Police Col. Patrick Callahan on May 9 telling school districts to plan on virtual graduations angered a number of parents and students who had hoped for the in-person ceremonies.
That was clarified the following day, but as other measures have eased, including allowing people to go to the beach, the pressure has increased for in-person graduations sooner, rather than in August as Murphy has suggested, or even as “in-car” celebrations, which have met with mixed reactions.
A group of Toms River high school seniors and their parents had filed a lawsuit in Ocean County Superior Court, saying Murphy’s executive order and the specific guidance on graduations before Tuesday’s announcement was a violation of their constitutional right to assemble under the First Amendment.
That lawsuit was scheduled to be heard Friday in Ocean County Superior Court.
Additionally, 17 student council presidents and senior class officers at public and private schools around New Jersey sent a letter to Murphy on Sunday requesting “live, outdoor graduations this summer with social distancing,” rather than the restricted ceremonies the governor has approved so far.
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This article originally appeared on the Toms River Patch