WESTFIELD, NJ — When thunderstorms interrupted Westfield High School’s graduation, Jake Tannenbaum was not surprised by the rain — but he was surprised by the response to it.
The recently minted Westfield High School graduate recalls being instructed to head into the Edison Intermediate School gym along with half of the graduating class on July 8, a move he refused to do citing his own safety. The thought of being shoulder-to-shoulder indoors with hundreds of others, he said, didn’t sit right with him.
“I didn’t trust that judgement,” he said, recalling most of his peers being in the gym for about 15 minutes. “I thought it was a bad call.”
While Westfield had not seen a new coronavirus case in three days as of Friday, it witnessed a spike in cases among young people on July 11, something officials linked to July 4 parties and out-of-state travel. And with the incubation period for COVID-19 lasting up to 14 days, according to the CDC, the possibility of a rise in cases attributable to time spent together during graduation looms.
There have been no publicly announced cases at or from the ceremony. However, interviews with a dozen Westfield High School graduates, photos and videos bring into question precautions taken during certain points of the event.
When lightning alarms interrupted the graduation ceremony, students recall the class of 477 being split up into two groups, half instructed to go into the Lincoln School Gym and the other half going to Edison School Gym.
“Please make sure you have your masks on and you stay socially distant as much as you can when you enter the gymnasiums,” Principal Mary Asfendis told the graduating seniors before they entered the gyms.
Some students said they were not directly told of a rain plan in advance by administrators, causing confusion. Although an email to parents from Asfendis that morning stated that students would evacuate to Edison and Lincoln schools if a thunderstorm occurred.
“My mom told me if this happens, go straight home and don't go into those buildings,” said Robert Rojas, who said he tried to leave the Lincoln School gym but was initially stopped by an administrator. “[My mom] didn’t want me being in a closed area with so many kids due to the risk of spreading or getting the virus.”
Inside both the Lincoln and Edison School gyms, students recall standing close to one another with well over 100 other students in the room, a potential violation of Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order on indoor gatherings. The order allows for 25% of a room’s capacity or 100 people at indoor gatherings, whichever comes first.
“People were within a foot of each other and a lot of people were right next to their friends,” recalled Rachel Saxon, who was in the Lincoln School gym. Saxon said there were “definitely” over 100 people in the room at its peak but credited a majority of students for keeping their masks on — though some took theirs off because of the “stuffy” air.
“It was pretty crowded and hot,” Saxon added.
Asfendis said in an email to TAPinto Westfield that she was not aware of any situation where a student was blocked from leaving, and said she saw some opting not to enter the Lincoln School at all.
“I personally observed students preferring not to be indoors at Lincoln and them choosing to drive home without going inside and administrators confirmed this with me,” she wrote.
Some students, though, disputed the principal’s assessment.
“I don't believe a lot of people left,” said Colin Sumner, who was inside the Lincoln School gym. Sumner said students were encouraged to stay in the gym indoors for the first 10-15 minutes, before dispersing to other parts of the building or outside. “We were waiting to see if we could continue [graduation] and a lot of us just wanted to get our diplomas.”
He added: “[Administrators] told us all to go into the buildings. They were pretty clear about it.”
Daniel Carmino, another Westfield High School graduate, described the Edison School gym being similarly crowded with about 200 people in there at its peak, according to his estimates. Graduates were in there for about 10 minutes before dispersing, but Carmino said he understood it was a tough decision for administrators to make.
“I wish they just would've planned better,” he said.
Carmino added that he got tested for coronavirus because of the ceremony and saw many of his classmates in line at the testing center.
In a statement to all parents in the school district, Mayor Shelley Brindle cited July 4th parties, group house rentals and recent travel to out of state hotspots as the main drivers of the virus’ recent spread in Westfield, but specifically urged caution for those in the school community.
“I’m reaching out to our school community specifically to ask that if you or anyone in your family feels they may have been exposed to please do two things: Immediately quarantine, and get tested,” Brindle wrote. “It’s important to do both because you may test too early after exposure and receive a false negative result while continuing to expose others.”
When asked if students who were in the close quarters should get tested, Asfendis said families who are concerned should refer to the CDC on the multiple factors determining whether anyone should get tested.
The state Health Department advises that people should get tested if they were “recently in a large crowd where social distancing was hard to maintain.” It is among a series of situations that would prompt New Jersey health officials to advise that someone be tested for COVID-19.
Asfendis also said that families were sent guidelines for students to follow, such as keeping a six-foot distance from others, wearing a mask at all times and refraining from attending if in contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19.
“Administrators in both areas encouraged students to keep their masks on and follow the guidelines that we sent out to families in advance of the ceremony,” she wrote. “Additionally, students were encouraged to spread out into the hallways, under the covered sidewalk (at EIS) or wait in their cars to further distance themselves. Many also went home at that time.”
And while students interviewed questioned why the ceremony was not moved onto the rain date given the chance of rain, Asfendis said the forecasted weather — a 40% chance of thunderstorms after 2 p.m. that day — favored continuing the 3 p.m. ceremony.
“The chance of storms had been decreasing throughout the day on a number of weather sites,” she wrote. “As the chance of storms changes so regularly, we hoped that low chance of storms forecast at noon when we decided to go forward was accurate.”
Some students interviewed credited some of the precautions put in place, including chairs spaced six feet apart on the field and people wearing masks. Others emphasized the balancing act administrators had of hosting a graduation ceremony amidst a pandemic, keeping families satisfied and the surprise of rainfall.
“I think there were things they did that were helpful,” Saxon said. “But there was poor planning and poor communication. It made a dangerous situation out of something that didn't need to happen.”
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