Murphy: Outdoor graduations OK starting July 6
Gov. Phil Murphy Tuesday announced that beginning July 6, schools will be able to hold outdoor graduation ceremonies.
The initial announcement on the governor's Twitter feed at 9:45 a.m. was light on details, saying only that ceremonies would have to comply with social distancing.
At the daily novel coronavirus response briefing, Murphy said the state Department of Education and the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education would both release guidance Wednesday on plans to allow for outdoor graduation ceremonies to celebrate students' accomplishments starting July 6.
Since some graduating classes are too large to accommodate at once while observing social distancing, the governor said it might require multiple ceremonies to be held across different times and even different days.
"Our goal is to ensure our students are given the sendoffs they richly deserve," Murphy said.
He continued "Certainly these will be graduations unlike any others," and added "We are equally as confident that no one will ever forget the way we will celebrate the Class of 2020."
Murphy did not yet elaborate on what the size limit would be on outdoor gatherings as of July 6, but said that officials would plan to give schools planning ceremonies, including high schools and colleges, as much advance notice as possible.
All New Jersey schools have been closed to in-person instruction since March, under Murphy's executive orders shutting down most retail businesses and preventing gatherings in hopes of slowing the spread of the virus. In recent weeks, Murphy has started to slowly loosen restrictions, with a particular emphasis on outdoor activities.
Several lawmakers, including fellow Democrat State Senate President Steve Sweeney, last week stepped up calls for the governor to allow outdoor graduations.
In a letter to his fellow Democratic leader, Sweeney endorsed a request by Gloucester County superintendents to allow voluntary in-person graduation ceremonies with limits placed on crowd sizes and interactions.
Notably, Deptford Township High School Principal Jeffrey Lebb plans to hold 125 "mini-graduations." Over a span of five days, two graduates at a time, joined by two guests each at most, would take part in 15-minute mini-graduation ceremonys. No individual ceremony would exceed 10 people, according to Lebb.
"While it would be unconventional, it is a creative way to preserve this momentous occasion and celebrate the class of 2020," Sweeney wrote, according to a copy of the letter published by InsiderNJ.
The state Senate president further offered any assistance he could be in making graduations happen.
The Sun Newspapers report last week, 14 Gloucester County superintendents sent Murphy a letter asking for some sort of outdoor graduations to be permitted.
Several Republican lawmakers had been urging the governor to allow graduations as well. State Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean (R-21) and Sen Kristin Corrado (R-40) both questioned why the governor won't allow the graduations until July 6. Murphy had said in his daily briefing he and other officials had debated internally whether to permit them before or after the July 4 holiday weekend.
"While I am pleased the governor has listened to the pleas of senior classes throughout our state, I ask that graduation ceremonies be held during the traditional timeline in June," Kean said in a press release Tuesday.
Corrado said in the same release that if the public can "currently gather at parks and beaches in a socially distant and safe manner, our graduates should be able to walk within the next month."
Murphy, for his part, had been non-committal on in-person graduations until Tuesday, but had signaled more guidance could be coming in the past few days.
Last week, responding to a call from state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., R-Union, for graduations with social distancing policies in place, Murphy said it's possible they could be allowed by the end of June.
“If it’s an outdoor related activity where we can have some management of capacity and social distancing, you should assume those are high on our list of considerations,” he said last week. "We’re able to consider right now a pretty long list of potential steps over a period of time measured between days and weeks. We are chopping through this.”
Murphy relaxed restrictions for small gatherings ahead of Memorial Day weekend, continuing to eye COVID-19 hospitalization rates that have gone down for weeks, and declining use of ventilators in New Jersey hospitals. He's said he's cautious to avoid another spike in novel coronavirus cases, but is moving through a multi-stage plan to reopen New Jersey businesses and public spaces.
In early May, Murphy formally ordered New Jersey schools closed to in-person instruction for the remainder of the year. Schools have operated remotely since March.
— Includes previous reporting by Erin Vogt and David Matthau