Mayor Baraka: ‘More than likely’ schools will need to reschedule prom and graduation

With school buildings shuttered indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka is warning high schoolers that cherished senior-year traditions are likely to be disrupted.

In his daily coronavirus briefing Tuesday, Baraka said it was “more than likely” that senior prom and graduation ceremonies will not happen this spring as scheduled. However, he assured the class of 2020 that officials will come up with alternatives, which he said could include rescheduling the events, organizing virtual celebrations, or even hosting a citywide prom sometime later.

“If all the seniors missed out on graduation and prom this year, we’re going to promise that the city, Newark Public Schools, we’re going to get together and do something major, incredible, for all our seniors that are graduating,” Baraka said. “We’ll figure it out, but we’re not going to let you miss out on that day.”

The coronavirus is continuing to rip through New Jersey, with the state announcing Wednesday a total of more than 22,000 cases of the virus and 355 deaths. In order to reduce infections, Gov. Phil Murphy has ordered non-essential businesses and all schools to close and residents to stay home. Newark police this week began shutting down businesses and ticketing people who violated the lockdown order.

In an interview Wednesday, Baraka told Chalkbeat that the “worst-case scenario” is that residents may need to remain home and schools shuttered through June, which would likely force the cancellation of senior-year ceremonies. 

“Graduation and prom are important, but they’re not more important than your health or the health of your family members,” the mayor said, before repeating his promise to help reschedule the events. “We’ll try to put something together, because they deserve it.”

School and district leaders are also planning for the possibility of disruptions. The principal of Bard High School Early College told 12th graders during a virtual meeting Wednesday that prom and graduation ceremonies could be rescheduled for August if necessary, a student said. 

Last week, Superintendent Roger León said schools will share revised prom plans with students “if and when necessary.” But, in contrast to the mayor’s message that students should brace themselves for the likelihood that prom and graduation will be disrupted, León emphasized the possibility that they could still proceed as planned.

“Let’s keep our fingers crossed,” León said during an online school board meeting. “Hopefully this will all begin to move behind us and we can celebrate graduation ceremonies as we originally designed.”

León will hold a virtual meeting with 12th graders on Friday, where he could go into more detail about any contingency plans for senior-year events. Roughly 2,500 seniors attend district high schools.

The pandemic has scrambled students’ lives nationwide, separating them from friends and forcing them to learn from living rooms instead of classrooms. But 12th graders have been under added strain, agonizing over the potential loss of senior-year rites of passage that many have spent years awaiting.

In Newark, planning was well underway for the events, with some students already putting down deposits for class trips and graduation caps and gowns. Kutorkor Kotey, a 12th grader who is on Bard’s prom committee, said the school had booked a hotel for the occasion and she had lined up three potential dresses to wear, all matched to the prom’s color scheme of royal blue and gold.

“We were ready to go,” she said. “A month ago, we never thought we might not have a prom.”

Even more dismaying is the potential loss of a graduation ceremony where students walk across a stage and have their hard work recognized by teachers and family members, Kotey said.

“That’s something we’ve been prepping for, what we aspire to have,” she said. “And then all of a sudden this thing just came out of nowhere and that’s just been taken away from us.”

Kotey said students were open to the suggestion by Bard’s principal Wednesday that prom and graduation might need to be moved to August.

“She explained that in these circumstances the best thing would be to reschedule, and we understood that,” Kotey said. “At least we’ll still have a celebration.”

A Newark Public Schools spokeswoman did not answer questions Wednesday about the district’s plans if prom and graduation cannot occur this spring. She said she could not confirm that rescheduling the events for August is one option under consideration.

“Parents and students will be notified of any changes to the school calendar,” said spokeswoman Nancy Deering.

One person who will be watching closely for any changes to the calendar is Flohisha Johnson, a Newark school board member whose son is a senior at Bard. At last week’s school board meeting, she echoed the mayor and superintendent, promising to do whatever she can to make sure the class of 2020’s accomplishments are still celebrated one way or another.

“We are going to make sure that you guys get all that you deserve,” she said.