As long as Gov. Phil Murphy's executive order against gatherings remains in effect during the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual graduation ceremonies "should take the place of any in-person or public ceremonies," according to guidance from State Police Superintendent Patrick Callahan and the state Department of Education.

Several school superintendents around the state say they received the latest guidance in a letter Friday from AbdulSaleem Hasan, Assistant Commissioner Division of Field Services, advising districts that they can only plan for virtual graduations “at this time." The May 8 letter also was posted to the DOE website.

Superintendents also confirmed receiving a May 9 letter signed by Callahan, which outlined the continued social distancing restrictions as they apply to the Class of 2020.

"In the best interest of the health and safety of the public, in-person ceremonies including graduations, all parades including "wave parades" that invite people to gather at a certain location, proms and other similar celebrations violate the enumerated conditions of the order and should be cancelled or postponed until such time as restrictions are lifted," Callahan said.

As of Sunday, New Jersey had 138,532 confirmed cases based on test results and 9,255 deaths from COVID-19.

Many school districts had begun planning ahead for possibly holding separate virtual celebrations while continuing to plan for in-person events either at a later time, or in different forms than a traditional, full class, in-person graduation.

The NJDOE letter referred to Murphy's Executive Order indefinitely closing school buildings amid the state's first public health emergency, and to a separate Executive Order prohibiting "gatherings of individuals for parties, celebrations, and other social events, which includes all in-person graduation ceremonies." The orders went into effect in March to slow the spread of COVID-19.

"We recognize that this sudden disruption to the normal operating procedures could be jarring for school communities at all levels. The resilience and adaptivity required to thrive in the face of unprecedented situations are characteristics embodied by the Class of 2020," the DOE letter said.

"Since the Executive Orders will remain in effect until further notice, only virtual graduation ceremonies can be planned at this time," Hasan wrote.

Hasan said that the DOE recognized that high school graduation is "certainly a
milestone for students and families" and offered tips and suggestions for virtual graduation ceremonies.

East Brunswick superintendent Victor Valeski told the Townsquare News Network the guidance from the DOE is what he expected.

"We have been planning, at a minimum, our virtual graduation ceremony and I communicated those intentions to our community on May 4th, as soon as Governor Murphy announced that all NJ schools shall remain closed for the remainder of this school year," Valeski said.

"Personally and professionally, I feel like this is the year interrupted without the 'traditional' end of year recognitions and ceremonies, especially for our graduating students, Valeski said. "I understand some of the feelings our graduates and their families are having. We are participants in an unprecedented global event. We are faced with so many things we cannot control and that has contributed to disappointment and frustration."

Valeski said he is proud of his entire district for the "amazing commitment and resiliency" they have exemplified since the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close.

Lakewood school superintendent Laura Winters said the district is planning both a virtual ceremony and an in-person ceremony for high school graduates "when it is deemed safe and healthy for all." Middle school students will also have both ceremonies. A prom will also take place.

Toms River Regional superintendent David Healy still is committed to having a live ceremony for the seniors at his district's three high schools even if it's not in June.

"When we are able and permitted to do so we will. We continue to follow the guidance of the governor, NJDOE, CDC and Ocean County Department of health. The Health, safety and the well being of our children's and staff must remain our top priority. All else is second. We are currently planning for virtual in the interim and in person even if it several months later," Healy said.

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