MORRISTOWN, NJ - James Patterson was really looking forward to walking down the aisle in Mennen Arena to collect his high school diploma.

Instead, on Saturday, Patterson drove alone in his black Jeep Grand Cherokee to the front of Morristown High School where the school principal, Mark Manning, handed
him his diploma -- through the car window.

“I was looking forward to having our graduation at Mennen as a last hurrah with all my classmates,” said Patterson, who is heading to West Virginia in the Fall.

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Every year, Morristown High School graduates and their families gather in Mennen Arena for what is a well-practiced right of passage as one door closes and another opens on their young lives. Every single student has their name called and can walk up, shake a hand, and receive their diploma.

That was not to be this year, because of the pandemic and need for social distancing. For the seniors, school ended with no fanfare, just PPE, and hope to attend college, get a job or head off to the military.

But Morristown educators were determined to make sure everyone got a little special treatment. The graduation ceremony is a well-practiced event and moves briskly. This year, officials had to improvise.

Starting at 9 am, seniors drove up in cars where they were greeted by Mr. Manning and other school employees. As one car drove up Manning or another administrators called out the student’s last name, as the staff fished through rows of paper bags looking for the right diploma.

It wasn’t exactly the same as walking the aisle at Mennen, but it was a nice moment.

“Man plans and God laughs,” said Manning who was trying to give his students some type of closure to end their high school careers.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, graduations across the country have been canceled or postponed. Morristown High School closed its doors March 15, initially for an extended spring break. But students never returned as the coronavirus spread rapidly throughout New Jersey.

Morristown found a way to celebrate its seniors anyway, with a car procession to collect diplomas. Manning estimated that about 400 students -- of the 463 in the graduating class - participated in the drive-through. But Manning and his staff have also found a way to have a graduation ceremony. Three ceremonies will take place on the turf at Morristown High School on July 8th and 9th. The class will be split up into smaller groups so that they can follow the health and safety guidelines that have been put in place to ensure that social distancing can take place.

“The best laid plans don’t always materialize,” said Manning, as he stood outside the high school with cars, some decorated to mark the moment, slowly rolling by.

The front of Morristown High School was busy with staff members holding balloons and flags congratulating the seniors who came to pick up their diplomas. All the staff members working to provide the seniors with their diplomas wore masks and followed the recommended health and safety guidelines to ensure that the event was successful for both the students and their general health.

Izzy Ha, a senior who will be attending The University of South Carolina in the fall, had already come to terms with not having graduation back in November. That’s because she was supposed to participate in the nationals for gymnastics.

But, that was canceled, too.

She drove up Saturday, alone, in her Honda CRV, went home, and said the diploma was still in the bag and would probably just end up in her drawer. Mr. Manning tried to take an optimistic view of the situation.

“I just hope we were able to make lemonade out of lemons,” said Manning who just wanted to take care of a class that had lost so much.

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