SOMERVILLE, NJ - High school and college seniors throughout New Jersey will enjoy the pomp and circumstance of an outdoor graduation with their fellow students and parents in attendance as Gov. Phil Murphy on Tuesday announced a relaxation of his executive orders issued in March imposing limits on crowd size and social distancing.

"To the class of 2020, I am proud to say that you will have your opportunity to join with your classmates and families to celebrate your graduation," he said at Tuesday's 11 a.m. daily COVID-19 press briefing.

“Despite the uncertainty of these times, our students deserve to have their hard work acknowledged and celebrate safely. We have reached a point where we feel confident moving forward and giving our graduates the send-off they have so rightly earned,” the governor added.

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Graduation ceremonies will be permitted to begin July 6 as long as school districts comply with social distancing and other requirements that Murphy said would be issued within the next few days.

Dr. Timothy Teehan, Somerville Schools superintendent, welcomed the news and is anxious to put a plan in place for the 272 seniors in the graduating class of 2020, their parents, families and friends.

"A full graduation? We would prefer to do that," Teehan said, "that's what we've been looking to do, but the guidance hasn't been there and the restrictions put in place haven't allowed us to do that."

The latest alternative plan for Somerville High School seniors was a scaled-down version of a traditional ceremony, with students permitted to come in to the school building on a scheduled basis on June 10, 11 and 12 for photos in their gown, accepting their diploma and moving the tassel on their mortarboard from one side to the other to signify their academic accomplishment.

"As soon as we get the details we will put a plan into place instead of planning for all the eventualities and the 'what ifs' ." Putting it together is not a problem, school districts do graduations every year, it's relatively routine," Teehan added.

"Without the specifics it's kind of hard to put a plan together and be in compliance," he said. 

Murphy did say it was possible that the ceremonies at each individual school might have to be extended over more than one day because of issues dealing with social distancing.

Unanswered is what happens if it rains; will ceremonies be allowed to convene indoors?

Teehan is confident the SHS Pioneers' football field will be adequate to handle the ceremony.

"I don't think there will be an issue, but will we be eating up the entire football field; some of those logistics from past years might have to change, but it will all depend on the guidance we are given," Teehan said. 

"Parents want details yesterday and that's understandable," Teehan added, "but it's hard to give out specifics when we don't know what the parameters are. "It's very frustrating for students, parents, staff but it is what it is; we can only go by what we're given.

"This is unprecedented. There is no playbook," he said.

School officials, parents and students have been pressuring Murphy to permit the traditional graduation ceremonies while planning alternative virtual ceremonies that would have been scaled back in size and scope of previous years' graduations,

“New Jersey is taking a wise, sensible approach toward graduation ceremonies,” said Education Commissioner Lamont O. Repollet. “This plan balances our desire to recognize the accomplishments of our graduating students, while providing the necessary safeguards for their safety, as well as the safety of their friends, families and school staff.”

“We recognize that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted students’ plans to walk across graduation stages this year,” said Dr. Zakiya Smith Ellis, Secretary of Higher Education. “We owe it to New Jersey’s students to celebrate their drive to overcome tremendous odds and complete their degrees. With this new guidance in place, we will be working with institutions to help ensure healthy, safe celebrations for students and families.”

DOE and OSHE guidance, which will be issued in full on Wednesday, will include the following requirements for commencement ceremonies:

  • Must take place on or after July 6, 2020;
  • Must take place outdoors or be drive-in/drive-through (no indoor ceremonies will be allowed);
  • Must adhere to the relevant capacity limitation in place at the time of the ceremony (this may require districts to hold multiple ceremonies held over a period of time to ensure capacity restrictions are not exceeded);
  • Districts and institutions must determine the minimum number of staff and faculty necessary to facilitate commencement ceremonies and adjust attendance requirements accordingly;
  • Caps, gowns, diplomas, and other materials must be mailed to individual student homes, sent electronically where possible, or otherwise distributed in a manner that complies with social distancing guidelines;
  • All activities must be coordinated in consultation with municipal officials, such as the local Office of Emergency Management, local law enforcement, first responders, and local health officials.

Additionally, DOE guidance will stipulate that commencements must be held only for graduation from middle school or high school, and not for other ceremonies that mark promotion from one grade to the next. Districts and institutions of higher education can continue to opt for virtual or drive-through/drive-in ceremonies held in accordance with Executive Order 142. Only virtual ceremonies can be held prior to July 6. 

Editors Note: This story will be updated throughout the day.