Legislators pushing Murphy to allow for outdoor graduations

Sweeney, DiMaso, O’Scanlon, Kean Jr. among those leading bipartisan push

By Tom Bergeron
Trenton | May 22, 2020 at 6:33 am

Gov. Phil Murphy hinted this past week that the state may find a way to allow for high school graduation ceremonies.

Members of the Legislature are urging him to do so.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) became the latest, asking Murphy on Thursday to approve a request from the superintendent in Gloucester County, Sweeney’s home base.

File photos
Gov. Phil Murphy, left, and Senate President Steve Sweeney.

“They understand the current public health crisis and are proposing a socially distant graduation,” he wrote to Murphy. “The ceremony would be closed to the public, students would be stationed in procession 6 feet apart and they would remain seated while degrees are conferred.

“While it would be unconventional, it is a creative way to preserve the momentous occasion.”

Murphy, who has a son who is a college senior, has repeatedly said he wants to find a way to allow for ceremonies, even if it meant later in the summer.

Earlier this week, during his daily COVID-19 briefings, he twice said students and parents should hold out hope for a solution.

“Bear with us, we’re trying to figure this one — and, I would hope, sooner rather than later,” he said Tuesday.

Any decision would almost certainly require events to be held outside — and likely come with limited tickets for family and friends. The challenge will be finding solutions that fit classes of all sizes.

The push for graduations is coming from both parties. Sweeney, like Murphy, is a Democrat. A few Republicans have made a similar request.

On Wednesday, Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso and state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (both R-Holmdel) made the request together.

Courtesy photos
Asm. Serena DiMaso and Sen. Declan O’Scanlon.

DiMaso said several towns have prepared sensible proposals that included social distancing and reduced capacity.

“At least one plan laid out social distance on a football field,” she said. “You can easily stay 6 feet apart and limit tickets for students. These are graduations that wouldn’t take place until June, we are slowly opening locations and this is a one-time milestone for these students.

“They can make it work; parents aren’t going to put their children in danger.”

O’Scanlon suggested large classes could be cut in half to reduce density. He also said it’s a decision that should be left open to school districts.

“We have drafted legislation to allow for these ceremonies but, honestly, we shouldn’t have to legislate common sense,” he said. “A football field or other outdoor stadium is plenty of room for most size graduation ceremonies.

“There are plenty of logical, innovative ways that parents and school officials have proposed to make this happen safely, the government just needs to get out of the way.”

State Sen. Tom Kean Jr., who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives, made his plea on Tuesday, saying digital services don’t cut it.

“A virtual commencement ceremony just isn’t the same as wearing a cap and gown with friends and classmates,” he said. “We know graduation ceremonies can be held safely. The governor should relent on this prohibition. It’s the least we can do for our graduating seniors.”

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