Schools try to keep the ‘pomp,’ given the ‘circumstance,’ in graduation

Sparta. Governor greenlights outdoor graduation ceremonies as local parents come up with “creative ways to celebrate our Class of 2020 and make sure they know we did all that we could to make a ‘not great’ situation better.”

Sparta /
26 May 2020 | 03:59

A Facebook post facetiously states: “If graduation can't be done inside a gym or outside on a football field, perhaps grads could walk through Walmart, Lowe's, or Home Depot and be announced over the speaker.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the planning of high school graduation is getting urgent, and some schools around the state are getting creative. Lakeland Regional High School, in Wanaque, N.J., will hold its Class of 2020 graduation on Wednesday, June 24, at The Warwick Drive-In. Rules are one car per family, and a YouTube link will be provided for viewers at home.

On Tuesday morning, May 26, Gov. Phil Murphy greenlighted outdoor graduations in a tweet: “TO THE CLASS OF 2020: Beginning July 6th, schools WILL have the opportunity to hold outdoor graduation ceremonies that comply with social distancing – ensuring the health and safety of all in attendance.”

On May 21, the superintendents of Hopatcong High School announced they had received one of New Jersey’s first approvals to hold an in-person high school graduation. The approved proposal from the governor’s office allows for a drive-in style graduation with participants remaining in their cars throughout the event, to be held on June 19. The graduation will be held in the upper high school parking lot that purportedly holds precisely the correct number of spaces as graduating seniors.

(It is not known as this paper goes to press whether schools will change their plans based on the governor’s Tuesday announcement.)

A drive-up graduation

Kittatinny Regional High School will be doing a two-phase graduation.

“The first phase will be a virtual and the second will be an in-person graduation at the school,” said principal Brian Bosworth. “We were approved for a drive-up graduation earlier this week. We have had an open dialogue with law enforcement to plan this event. Our drive-up graduation will be on our graduation night, which is June 15.”

The school's usual “Project Graduation” had to be canceled. However, something else emerged.

The class president, Nellie Choma, and student council president, Olivia Redden, were trying to think of ways to keep their class connected.

“We created an Instagram as a platform to reach out to our classmates,” Nellie said. “Whomever signed up filled out a survey of their favorite things. Olivia and I randomly assigned 'senior buddies,' and buddies had two weeks to to fulfill any act of kindness for their buddy. So far, everyone is loving it.”

In Sparta, a grassroots effort was initiated by a group of passionate parents who want their children to have the best possible time, both for graduation and leading up to graduation.

“Obviously, so much has been canceled -- spring concerts, sports, awards, prom, parties,” said Robyn Papandrikos, the parent of a senior. “We are coming up with creative ways to celebrate our Class of 2020 and make sure they know we did all that we could to make a ‘not great’ situation better.”

There are nearly 20 parents on the original email chain, but key people have been Kelly Merwin and Jacqueline Groff, in addition to Papandrikos.

“We have been in constant contact with school administration, mayor, and police chief,” Papandrikos said. “All are making an effort to work with us, within the parameters of the law. Our proposed plan is still awaiting approval for school-sanctioned events and police involvement.”

The group’s intention is in the vein of creating a senior week, such that they can. Regarding the graduation ceremony, it's a wait and see, according to Papandrikos.

“We received an email from the administration that a virtual graduation is in place for June 19,” she said. “They are working hard (within the law) to allow for a possible July 15 in-person ceremony. What that will look like, we don’t know.”

Principal Ronnie Spring did not return a request for an updated comment as of press time.

Keeping up with rapid changes

Newton High School's graduation will be “virtually based,” according to principal Jeff Waldron. He said these plans are to “ensure we are within the rapidly changing restrictions.”

“If updated executive orders permit an in-person program of some sort before the end of the summer, we will plan a second ceremony for anyone wishing to attend,” Waldron said. “This is a unique situation, and we are planning a unique ceremony for the wonderfully resilient Class of 2020.”

Alexander Stone is a senior at Newton High. He's also a student/athlete who missed his senior year baseball season with his teammates. He'll be heading to Duke University to play baseball in the fall.

“I think that they should do whatever is best (for graduation) and especially safest for the community,” he said. “I would love to have an in-person graduation so I could see my classmates one more time, but I do understand that putting people in harm’s way is not worth it.”

He called the spring of 2020 “unique.”

Elsewhere in the state, bitterness about graduation is escalating. The Asbury Park Press reported that three township businesses standing up for three Toms River High School East graduating seniors are suing the governor, claiming his executive orders preventing them from operating and graduating in public violate their constitutional rights.

“Missing out in prom, the senior picnic and the senior trip is awful, but hopefully students and parents realize that it is best for the community,” Stone said. “I would just like to wish everyone a safe and healthy rest of the year and hopefully we can get back to normal life soon.”

“I think that they should do whatever is best (for graduation) and especially safest for the community. I would love to have an in-person graduation so I could see my classmates one more time, but I do understand that putting people in harm’s way is not worth it.” --Alexander Stone, Newton High School senior