WEST ORANGE, NJ — Following Gov. Phil Murphy’s decision to allow in-person graduation ceremonies after July 6 with social-distancing requirements in place, West Orange Superintendent of Schools Dr. J. Scott Cascone acknowledged the challenges that would accompany such an event and addressed the district’s standpoint on graduation plans for the Class of 2020.

As he awaited further guidance from the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) on Wednesday, Cascone noted that superintendents across the state are concerned about “the fine print in Gov. Murphy's announcement” as it relates to capacity limitations for these ceremonies.

During a press briefing in Trenton on Tuesday, Murphy stated that this guidance “may require multiple ceremonies to be held across different times and even different days to ensure proper social distancing”—particularly in districts where the graduating class is “too large to accommodate a crowd within the restrictions in place for outdoor gatherings.”

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“While he has okayed on-site graduations for after July 6, what he has not removed from that language is the capacity limitation in terms of the gatherings,” said Cascone, reiterating that the current limitation on outdoor gatherings is 25 people. “[This limitation] wouldn't constitute an en masse graduation where the whole class gets to be together; it would be small groups of students. Logistically speaking, for a school of our size, it would really be impossible to run 20 successive graduation ceremonies at least... 

“We understand from the governor that there will be additional guidance specificity coming from the NJDOE; but until they relax the capacity limitation, it definitely remains an obstacle to being able to do any kind of en masse gathering.”

Although he acknowledged that “many seniors and parents would be thrilled” if the West Orange district was able to host an in-person ceremony this summer, Cascone also pointed out that there “may very well be a silent group of folks who would not necessarily feel comfortable having their kids attend.”

“I think that's a side of the coin that isn't often spoken about in this conversation,” he said. “The voices of folks who want it to happen and would be thrilled to see it happen tend to be the voices that we hear, but I know that there are people who would not necessarily feel comfortable with it because of the health concerns.”

Despite these considerations, Cascone said the district is already developing plans for the eventuality.

“As soon as we heard this, we reached out to vendors that we previously canceled in order to get them back on the hook in the event that we need to utilize those services,” he said. “We are obviously estimating those costs and having internal conversations; but it remains to be seen whether, under the new guidelines, we would actually be able to do it in the way that I think people are reading into it.”

Regardless of future gatherings, the superintendent confirmed that the virtual graduation ceremony planned for June will be held as scheduled and recognized the hard work that has gone into preparations for the event. 

“At a time when there was little guidance and no definitive understanding of whether schools would be able to have an on-site graduation, we put a significant amount of work into it,” he said. “And it will be something that will be forever, so to speak—so regardless of whether we end up doing something on site as well, the [virtual] ceremony will take place on the day and time that it was originally scheduled.”

Cascone also said he expects any follow-up ceremony on site to be a “stripped down” version of what is typically seen at West Orange High School, but noted that holding such an event would provide closure for many of the students.

“It wouldn't look exactly like it has in the past, but it would obviously represent an opportunity for graduates to be able to hear their name, to cross the stage and to be together with their classmates—albeit 6 feet apart with masks on,” he said. “They would be able to have that closure with their classmates if in fact we are able to assemble in that large of group, which presently we are not authorized to do.”

Although the requirements in place allow for outdoor gatherings of up to 25 people as of this week, Murphy said on Tuesday that health data would dictate the limits on outdoor gatherings come July.

“Our goal is to ensure our students are given the send-offs they richly deserve and which they have been working toward,” said Murphy. “We want them to celebrate and be celebrated by their families, friends and the educators who helped get them there.”

Murphy’s announcement follows calls from both students and parents for the state to permit graduation ceremonies, including hand-written letters from seniors throughout the state and online petition posted to Change.org that had nearly 60,000 signatures as of Tuesday morning.