State guidelines released Wednesday night for college as well as private and public school graduations in July have left education officials with unanswered questions. The biggest unknown is how many students and guests will be allowed at each ceremony.

The guidelines from the departments of Education and Higher Education say that the number of people allowed will depend on what the state rule is at the time for in-person gatherings.

Currently, Gov. Phil Murphy's executive order limits gatherings to 25 people. The limit has gone as low as 10 but at the start of the pandemic was 250.

A lawsuit filed this month in Superior Court by parents of Toms River high school seniors argues that districts can safely hold graduation ceremonies on football fields, where large numbers of students and guests can maintain 6 feet of separation from each other.

Murphy also has allowed drive-thru and drive-in events but the graduation guidelines released Wednesday do not allow for vehicle ceremonies until July 6, which Murphy announced this week would be the date when graduation ceremonies could first be held.

"Certainly these will be graduations unlike any others," he said. "We are equally as confident that no one will ever forget the way we will celebrate the Class of 2020."

Mount Olive schools Superintendent Rob Zywicki said he is glad that outdoor commencements are being allowed and that it is the "No. 1 thing" that parents and students are asking him. But, he added, the ceremony will be "an imperfect event."

"There's some details here that give me a little pause," he said Thursday morning. "It says that the number of participants is going to be based upon the then-current guidance. Right now that's 25 people per public gathering. So for us — and I have no problem doing this — are we going to have to do four graduation ceremonies? Can we split it to two? We're going to plan to do multiple graduation ceremonies and hope for the best."

Students will likely not get their customary four tickets and the ceremony will be live-streamed, he said.

If the number of people allowed in a single gathering is increased by the state, the plans could easily be adjusted, he said.

The plan is frustrating for Toms River Regional School District Superintendent David Healy, whose district has three high schools.

"So how does this guidance change anything?" he said. "Should we interpret this to mean for our High School North that has 540 graduates, 22 separate ceremonies?"

Because the guidelines recommend no sharing or exchanging of materials that "poses an increased risk of transmission/spread of COVID-19," ceremonies themselves will change.

  • All in attendance must wear a face covering.
  • Except for immediate family and romantic partners, people should keep 6 feet apart.
  • Diplomas, awards, medals should not be given out during the ceremony.
  • Caps and gowns and programs should be mailed ahead of time. It is recommended graduates not be allowed to throw their caps in the air or accept gifts or flowers.
  • The entry and exit of students and guests will need to be staggered when possible and multiple entrances and exits should be used to limit congregating after the ceremony and to allow for social distancing.
  • Districts should make accommodations for those who cannot attend in person.
  • The number of staff should be limited to only those required to facilitate the commencement ceremony and should consider class size and available space.
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