'Convoluted, contradictory and confused’: Frustrated N.J. school officials still puzzled by graduation rules

Posted May 28, 2020

After weeks of speculation, New Jersey school superintendents expected to find out once and for all this week what an in-person graduation ceremony can look like in July.

Promised guidance from the state Department of Education came Wednesday night. Confusion and concern quickly followed.

“The guidance has been convoluted, contradictory and confused from the start,” said Charles Sampson, superintendent of the Freehold Regional High School District, on Thursday. “We have altered our graduation plans several times, and the clear lack of guidance has caused us to waste energy that should be directed toward reopening.”

The new guidance for graduation ceremonies in the age of COVID-19 calls for expected social distancing requirements, like wearing masks and ensuring six feet of space between students. But it notably lacks an official number of people who can attend an in-person ceremony (the state’s current maximum for outdoor events is 25). And the directive seemingly contradicts prior guidance by saying drive-thru or drive-by ceremonies, which many schools planned for June, cannot take place until July 6.

“Superintendents have plenty of questions this morning,” said Rene Rovtar, superintendent of Montville Township Public Schools. “I think most parents and students will be very disheartened to read these parameters.”

Asked Thursday about the contradictory guidance on drive-thru ceremonies, Murphy at first said they are allowed in June and nothing has changed. He later said there is a difference between ceremonies with students remaining in their cars, which would be allowed, and those that involve getting out of their cars, which would not be allowed until July.

Murphy’s administration later added that drive-thru ceremonies currently scheduled in June would be allowed, but any new ceremonies would need to be scheduled for July.

Such a lack of clarity is what superintendents say has made planning for graduation especially challenging.

“We understand the fluid nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we have spent hours and hours making plans, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to adjust to the repeated shifts in direction,” Rovtar said.

Parents, students and politicians have made graduation ceremonies a major flash point in reopening the state, especially after watching milestones such as prom lost to Murphy’s near-lockdown measures to contain the virus.

On Thursday, Republican critics in the state Legislature called on Murphy to allow ceremonies as soon as June 15 and without the “restrictive” measures. Some superintendents have said seniors are no longer considered students after June 30, raising other issues.

Not yet knowing the total number of people who can attend each ceremony is especially difficult for large districts, said David Cittadino, superintendent of the Old Bridge Township School District. His high school has more than 700 graduates, and he was hoping to receive clarity on how many separate ceremonies he will need to plan.

Murphy understands the frustration, but doesn’t want to give school districts a number for how many people can attend only to reduce it if circumstances change, he said.

“Somewhere between now and a reasonable amount of time from now, we will give some more guidance,” Murphy said. “I will be shocked if it is 25 or even close to 25 by July 6.”

Until that number is determined, superintendents say they will have to plan for multiple ceremonies of varying sizes while figuring out how to follow other aspects of the guidance, like the suggestion that schools check the temperature of everyone who attends.

“This entire situation has been emblematic of the lack of guidance for schools throughout the COVID-19 crisis,” Sampson said. “We need to be better for the fall.”

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