HASBROUCK HEIGHTS, NJ - New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has begun slowly re-opening the state as part of his six-point plan to restart the state's economy. Recently the governor allowed for the opening of car dealers, bicycle shops, beaches and lakes, some outdoor recreational outlets, some non-essential businesses and elective surgeries, with appropriate CDC guidelines and social distancing. But the one question which continues to dog Murphy at his daily press briefings is live graduations for high school seniors who are missing out on a major life milestone.
One local student is letting his voice be held and advocating for himself and his classmates.
A Quick Look Back
Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco closed down all schools in mid-March and students switched to remote learning. The governor closed schools through the end of the school year in early May. New Jersey State Police Superintendent Pat Callahan even weighed in saying that "live graduations" would violate the governor's stay-at-home executive order. So high schools across New Jersey, including Hasbrouck Heights and Wood-Ridge have made plans for "virtual graduations" to be streamed online.
But Mario Gomez of Hasbrouck Heights has started an online petition for the governor to consider a live high school graduation. His petition, titled Postpone Senior Class 2020 Graduation, requests that graduation ceremonies be postponed so the Class of 2020 can have a proper graduation service. Currently, the three-sport athlete has over 500 signatures, with a goal of 1,000.
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"A lot of classmates said they really appreciate that someone was doing something to help out," said Gomez. "We want our voices to be heard."
Gomez suggested Hasbrouck Heights hold its graduation at Depken Field, where students can be appropriately spaced out. He also said that having graduation or senior prom in mid- or late August would cause issues for fall sports athletes going away to college, many who need to report by August 1 to begin practices and scrimmages.He pointed to high schools in western Pennsylvania that are having live proms and graduations, and suggested Hasbrouck Heights could hold it in early July.
Wood-Ridge parent Nicole Vazquez has the same lament and disappointment for her daughter and her classmates.
"We're among a plethora of people who feel the same way," she said.
Her daughter, Christina, was named Salutatorian of the WRHS Class of 2020. Vazquez explained that the family was notified on March 11 about her honor. Two days later, the schools were shut down.
"She's definitely disappointed, but realistic," said Vazquez. "It's a big disappointment that she won't be able to walk on stage and feel that pride, but she feels it within herself."
She also recognized that the school does have different virtual events planned.
Hasbrouck Heights Superintendent of Schools Dr. Matthew Helfant addressed virtual graduation during Thursday night's Board of Education meeting. The district is moving ahead with virtual graduations.
"That is the minimum," Helfant stated during the livestream.
He reported that he had sent a letter to the governor and state legislators, asking them to review the executive order, saying it's "not a one size fits all" approach. Earlier in the week, he had also emailed parents of seniors, encouraging them to reach out to elected officials.
After the BOE meeting, Helfant told TAPinto that the district has plans in place for fifth graders, eighth graders and seniors for a live graduation, which would be held at Depken Field, spread out over several days. They are "ready to go when we get the green light."
Helfant said he was aware of the online petition that Gomez had created, and supports his efforts.
"I support students trying to have their voices heard and doing it through the appropriate channels and to exercise their right," he said.
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