MILLBURN, NJ — While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has officially ended in-person learning for the year, an outside hope remains that physical graduation ceremonies can still be salvaged in some form.
In that mindset, a number of student body leader from across the state, including Millburn's senior class president Jamie Serruto and vice president Charlie Baker, signed onto an open letter addressed to Governor Phil Murphy.
The letter requests that governor Murphy take the decision about graduations out of the hands of the state, and return autonomy to individual school districts, in conjunction with recommendations from health agencies.
Speaking with TAPinto MIllburn/Short Hills in an exclusive interview, Serruto said that after Westfield senior class president Alexis Hammer's lobbying efforts on the same topic earlier this month went public, he brought her on board with other student leaders in the open letter.
“I was able to connect with Alexis Hammer as soon as her letter was released, and I was able to connect my network of student leaders and representatives around the state," he said. "We’re all bound together with the single focus of trying to convince and urge Governor Murphy to allow high school seniors the ability, and allow school districts the ability to put on in-person graduation ceremonies.”
Serruto also noted that his feelings and opinions on the matter were his and his alone, and that he was speaking not as an elected member of the Millburn Board of Education, but as a student leader at Millburn High School.
As for the reason behind the letter and other lobbying efforts, he noted that coronavirus has taken away the final few months where the senior class at schools all across the state could enjoy the fruits of their labor.
“This pandemic has taken a huge stab, carved out a huge part of our senior year that we’ll never get back," Serruto said. "But we’ve tried to be creative, and we have followed social distancing, we’ve worn masks. We’ve toughed it through to flatten the curve. But at this point, as conditions have improved, we believe that we would be able to put on live, in-person graduation ceremonies [while] following all the necessary guidelines.”
Another aspect of the letter noted by Serruto in the interview was the broad partnership between both public and private schools, with each category represented on the list of signees.
“I think it’s fantastic," Serruto said. "It’s what you want to see out of leadership and out of government for that matter. Working with one another, putting regions aside […] trying to remove the differences that separate us and think about our similarities.”
We are all high school seniors, and we are all entitled to this grand celebration, to this closure. And we believe it’s so important to provide closure, especially after this pandemic, where things were literally ripped out of our hands.”
Another aspect Serruto noted was the fact that no member of the student signing delegation was coming forth with malice or scorn. He simply noted the group was looking to open a dialogue and make their voices heard.
“Our focus is not to be protestors, our focus is not to make a lot of noise, our focus is to bring awareness and to get a seat at the table, to be partners with Governor Murphy, in order to serve all of the students in the state," Serruto said.
He continued, "In order to recognize those who have worked so hard and are deserving of the honor […] We submitted recommendations, we submitted opinions, but in no way are we trying to denigrate or be aggressive or turn our backs. We are here to come together, to be one.”
In the event that the door does open for graduation, Serruto said that he and the other members of the class of 2020 would be willing to put up with any kind of restriction, including no audience members or mini-ceremonies that split the class up into smaller chunks, but that all the signees want to give individual districts the discretion to make the choice.
Specifically in Millburn, Serruto said senior group has worked to provide the best festivities possible.That includes blocking out first week in August for senior activities and/or prom if the guidelines permit it. He emphasized that the senior leaders are looking to do all they can and are not taking anything off the table.
As the interview wrapped up, Serruto reiterated how proud he was of his fellow members of the class of 2020, both here in Millburn and around the state.
“I’m extremely proud of every member of the class of 2020. We have been extremely resilient, extremely tough, and we have really done our part to help flatten the curve," Serruto said. "My heart goes out to every student.”
To read the open letter in full, click here.