As Newark seniors await graduation plans, New Jersey says only virtual events allowed

The New Jersey education department said last week that “only virtual graduation ceremonies can be planned at this time.” In Newark, seniors are waiting to learn what that will look like. (Getty Images/WIN-Initiative)

Like districts across the country, Newark is wrestling with a quarantine quandary: How can high schools adhere to safety rules during the pandemic while still celebrating seniors? 

Some students have proposed drive-through graduation ceremonies where a procession of cars line up at schools and graduates pick up their diplomas individually. But state officials appeared to throw cold water on such plans, issuing guidance letters on Friday and Saturday saying any in-person ceremonies — including parades — would violate the governor’s lockdown orders and “only virtual graduation ceremonies can be planned at this time.”

Now, Newark’s Class of 2020 is awaiting word from Superintendent Roger León. León held a virtual meeting with seniors last week where he said that graduation will happen on June 18 — but he has not announced what the ceremony will look like.

“That’s the million-dollar question at this point,” said Devon Corry, a 12th-grader at University High School. “That’s what we’re all waiting for.”

High schools nationwide are finding creative ways to salvage graduation for the Class of 2020, which has already missed out on cherished senior year milestones such as prom and class trips due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some districts have unveiled plans for in-person but socially distanced events, including car parades, drive-through diploma pick-ups, and closed ceremonies where seniors walk across the stage in front of mostly empty auditoriums.

But on Friday, New Jersey’s education department issued the guidance saying only virtual graduation events are currently allowed. The letter offered suggestions, including airing messages on local TV stations, streaming speeches online, or even hosting digital ceremonies on gaming platforms.

The state police superintendent, Col. Patrick Callahan, followed up with a letter on Saturday reiterating that any graduation events that “invite people to gather at a certain location” would violate Gov. Murphy’s emergency orders, which ban public gatherings and forbid leaving the home except for approved reasons. Callahan clarified during a coronavirus briefing Monday that people may drive past graduates’ homes to cheer them on from their cars — but no one should gather at schools or other public places.

“It stinks, there’s no other way to put it,” Murphy said Monday, but added that the need to limit the spread of the coronavirus must outweigh the desire to honor the Class of 2020. “We feel awful, but we also have to make sure that by celebrating this year that we don’t lose somebody.”

The restrictions appear to dash the hopes of students such as Corry, who had envisioned something more memorable than an online commencement. 

Devon Corry, a senior at University High School, reads at home while school buildings are closed. Corry developed a detailed proposal for drive-by graduation ceremonies in Newark — but new state guidelines say only virtual events are allowed. (Courtesy of Devon Corry)

Along with his senior class advisor, Corry developed a detailed proposal for a drive-through graduation where students would hop out of their cars to collect their diplomas and pose for photos one at a time. While graduates awaited their turns, they could watch their school’s valedictorian and salutatorian give livestreamed speeches. Corry, who is the school’s student government president, detailed his plan in an online petition last week that garnered nearly 100 signatures.

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Corry is disappointed that his plan now seems unlikely, but he’s trying to keep things in perspective.

“While graduation is one of the biggest milestones in your life, we have to think that we are blessed to have life,” he said, nothing that some students have lost loved ones to the virus. 

Stephanie Jones, the class advisor, said seniors will still receive caps and gowns, though the school must figure out how to safely distribute those items and let students clear out their lockers. The school is also honoring seniors by posting their photos on social media along with the colleges they plan to attend this fall. But everyone is still waiting on León to announce the district’s virtual graduation plans, said Jones, who teaches English at University.

“Knowing our superintendent, it will be big,” she said. “We just don’t know anything concrete.”

A district spokeswoman said plans are still being completed, and added that Murphy’s stay-home orders appear to forbid drive-though graduations.

In a letter to families last week, León did not provide details about his plans, but promised “the most incredible graduation ceremony this city has ever experienced.”

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