BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The seniors at Bridgewater-Raritan High School are slated to hold a virtual graduation ceremony on June 23 as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but it remains to be seen if the Class of 2020 will also get to say goodbye in a more traditional fashion.
“Safety continues to be our first focus,” said Superintendent Russell Lazovick at the May 28 online meeting of the Bridgewater-Raritan board of education. “We remain committed to our students in planning for the end of the year.”
He added that the last few weeks of the current school year, which have been conducted online since March, will be focused on the health and wellness of the Bridgewater-Raritan school district’s student population. He also said that district staff have gone “above and beyond” in the last few stressful months, working daily to support the various stakeholders through what he termed “an unprecedented situation.”
Lazovick said an immense amount of work has been done in supporting the high school and the Class of 2020. The district is expected to stick to its plans as far as the month of June is concerned, which was decided prior to the governor’s recent announcement that modified in-person graduation ceremonies can begin after July 6, and they must be held outdoors or be drive-in, drive-through.
“We’ve been planning for weeks,” said Lazovick. “We know it’s a difficult topic.”
In the month of June, community members are being asked to place signs on windows and on their lawns that say "BRHS. Class of 2020. United Apart."
From there, while maintaining social distancing guidelines, an administrator will visit the home of each senior, in a bus with a banner celebrating the Class of 2020. The administrator will visit the house with a personalized graduation package that will include a diploma cover, program, keepsake graduation tickets, honor cords, non-monetary awards and a BRHS lawn sign that will be more personalized.
While discussing the planned June 23 virtual celebration, where the public is being asked to honk vehicle horns at 8:20 p.m. that evening in solidarity with the graduates, Lazovick mentioned “concerning comments” and “baseless attacks” on the administration and district, on social media channels, which he added are “unworthy” of the community. He also said there have been many more positive comments, and that he and high school principal Charles Ezell have tried to respond to all e-mails.
“The central focus of our work is safety first,” Lazovick said, while also trying to satisfy this year’s high school graduating seniors so they can “celebrate their achievements with their friends.”
Lazovick said the district has examined parking availability, seating arrangements, traffic flow, photographic needs, restroom accessibility and other matters encompassing a potential public graduation ceremony. He has also spoken with the mayors of both towns, and with Bridgewater-Raritan Education Association President Laura Kress, about what might be possible in the coming weeks.
In addition, Lazovick said he has spoken with a representative from the Somerset Patriots, who he said had been very supportive of the community and “incredibly helpful,” along with the school board’s attorney.
“We’re aggressively working to answer questions,” said Lazovick, “and to gain the permissions necessary for our students to celebrate graduation safely.”
It was later mentioned that it might be possible to host graduation at TD Bank Ballpark, and board member Lynn Hurley asked about possibly rotating the graduates through that facility. The Patriots’ 2020 season, which was expected to start in late April, has been on hold due to the coronavirus, like the rest of North American professional sports.
TD Bank Ballpark is already slated to be used for drive-in-movies on back-to-back nights in mid-June.
Lazovick said several times that the district is trying to go beyond what the governor’s guidelines are for re-opening on July 6, in terms of safety, and that he has also been meeting with superintendents in the county and the state. The district is also working to have one page on its website where members of the public and the school system can go to for updates and other information on graduation and related matters, and the challenges facing the district in those areas, particularly with the coronavirus.
He added that there has simply been no change in the current coronavirus-related restrictions by the state’s department of education. He said the district could be ready by July 4, but “we have to keep everyone safe” in possibly holding a graduation ceremony.
School board member Lynne Hurley met with township administrator Michael Pappas and several municipal health officials about holding a public graduation.
“Graduation would need to be organized by the district,” said Hurley, “but they would support the district in any way they could.”
She also said she would volunteer in any way she could herself, and that it breaks her heart to think of all the Class of 2020 has already missed because of the pandemic, including its senior prom. She said she doesn’t know if graduation would be a community event if it was held after July 6, sanctioned by the government instead of the district, as some members of the public had postulated in online comments.
Student board representative, and graduating senior, Jessica Brookner said she had spoken to Ezell, who said the school would assist in planning.
Lazovick said the governor’s order is about providing safety in public gatherings, and that after June 30, students technically are no longer overseen by the district. The superintendent also said that any potential July graduation plans have to be submitted to the state, which could tell administrators to pare the event down.
“We can’t do anything without their guidance,” said Lazovick.
Hurley reiterated that she is in support of an in-person graduation ceremony.
“They deserve it,” she said of the seniors.
She said she understands it would be a difficult undertaking, with changes regarding the coronavirus occurring almost daily, but feels that perhaps the district could exhibit flexibility as time goes on. School board president Jackie Barlow asked about supporting a ceremony under the right circumstances, and Lazovick replied that the district has to submit a plan that is best for the students.
“The state has the ultimate yes or no,” he said.
He said the district wants to do everything it can for its students, but it has to take health and other considerations into account.
While the meeting ran, comments from members of the public could be seen on screen. Nearly all of them dealt with graduation, telling the board to hold a public graduation, or to cooperate with the Patriots to make it happen, while others simply commented “We are B-R.”
Some complained that other districts have already established dates for public graduation ceremonies.
Lazovick responded those were more akin to photo opportunities than full graduation ceremonies, as only a limited number of individuals could be together at one time, and no microphones could be shared, among other stipulations.
“We’re trying to get our kids together as best as we can,” he said.
He also said that the longer the district waits, the more likely it is that more students could be assembled at one time, barring any change in the coronavirus pandemic. He added that the Patriots are willing to work with the district, but that there would need to be other alterations in graduation procedures due to the current times.
“Something as simple as tossing caps into the air can’t happen right now,” said Lazovick. “What we haven’t said (to public graduation) is no.”
School board member Zachary Malek, himself a recent Bridgewater-Raritan High School graduate, said his own graduation had been important to him.
Barlow pointed out during the first public portion of the meeting that there have been many comments concerning a possible outdoor graduation.
“We’re working to make what is safe possible,” she said. “We’re under state guidance.”
Just before the close of the meeting, Brookner said she was excited about the Patriots possibly bringing her class together one last time, or having a gathering later in the summer to close out the seniors’ high school years.
“I hope it’s able to happen,” she said.