CAMDEN, NJ — The Camden school district will not have in-person graduation ceremonies for the 2020 Class this year despite Gov. Phil Murphy allowing them with certain contingencies as of July 6. 

“The governor has relaxed certain standards in the area of in-person graduations...however, in having conversations with our school leaders and also in looking at the rates of COVID-19 spread in Camden city, which has the highest rates of COVID-19 in Camden County, we wanted to make sure...that we’re being responsible in our decision-making,” Superintendent Katrina McCombs said Tuesday during the school board's monthly meeting. 

Instead, students will partake in a virtual graduation ceremony June 22. 

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What McCombs called “a happy medium,” the district began offering photo opportunities for high school graduates starting Wednesday at Brimm Medical Arts High School and Pride Academy. Photo ops will also be offered at Pride Academy on Thursday, Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy (July 18 at 11 a.m.), Camden High School (July 14 at 11 a.m.), and Big Picture Learning Academy (week of July 13).

These will be intimate gatherings designed to safely commemorate students as COVID-19 continues to necessitate restrictions, school district spokeswoman Alisha Brown told TAPinto Camden. Limits on capacity will be in place during outdoor diploma presentations and photo ops in July, she added.

“Each school has their own special flavor and character, and we are looking forward to celebrating in person at the events that are listed here,” McCombs said.

The district first announced virtual graduation ceremonies at the end of May, saying it would consider whether in-person July ceremonies would be feasible. When Murphy announced in-person graduations would be allowed, the state said they could be held outdoors with capacity limits, multiple events if needed and with minimum staff on site. 

But the superintendent said Tuesday that after weighing both routes, “disparities of casualties in Camden” was among the biggest factors that led to the decision. 

Camden city accounts for 2,179 of the county’s 7,422 total cases as of Wednesday — the most by far from any municipality in the county and 1,215 more than the runner-up, Cherry Hill. Camden has also confirmed over 40 deaths. 

“When you look at all the other schools who were able to schedule [the ceremonies] during the school year, it kind of puts Camden on the side of not properly being prepared and it doesn't sit very well,” said Camden resident, Je'nell McRae, during the public comments portion of the meeting.

She also noted that incorrect orders were put through for Creative Arts students regarding caps and gowns.

The superintendent later clarified that it had to do with the company they enlisted not being able to order teal (a custom color) due to COVID-19 and instead sending royal blue. An issue, she said, that was rectified. 

McRae also acknowledged the frustration and angst seniors have felt over the past few months, saying it would be added onto following the recent announcement. 

"I thank you for speaking about graduation and the thoughts about how the students may be feeling because that's what's most important," McCombs said in response. "I understand I remember in 1987, graduating from Camden High School, [which was] one of the most joyous days of my life...So I want to say that we definitely feel for and understand how students may be feeling. This has just been such a strange, chaotic year, especially for our seniors."

She said, however, that the board and her team was not able to approve celebrating students in the traditional way in the midst of the health crisis.

For students who were loaned out Chromebooks from the district but have photo ops prior to June 22, they will be allowed to hold onto the laptops until after the virtual ceremonies and return them in exchange for their diplomas. 

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