Freehold Township High School graduation 2019

N.J. schools can have in-person graduations in July in major change to coronavirus rules, Murphy says

New Jersey high schools, middle schools and colleges will be allowed to hold in-person graduation ceremonies “unlike any others” beginning July 6, as long as they are outside and comply with social distancing, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Tuesday.

The decision, announced via Twitter, comes as Murphy was under intense pressure to allow schools to do more than the virtual ceremonies many had planned to comply with his executive order banning large gatherings.

“To the Class of 2020, I am proud to say that you will have your opportunity to join with your classmates and families to celebrate your graduation,” Murphy said in his daily press briefing.

The move was one of two major announcements Murphy made Tuesday. He also said professional sports teams in New Jersey may return to training and even competition if their leagues are ready.

For graduations, the state will release guidance Wednesday for social distancing requirements and other necessary health and safety measures. Some graduating classes may be too large for a single ceremony with social distancing, Murphy said. Multiple ceremonies might need to be held across different times and days to ensure proper social distancing, he added.

“Our goal is to ensure that our students are given the send-offs they richly deserve, and which they have been working toward,” Murphy said. We want them to celebrate and to be celebrated by their families, friends, and the educators who helped get them there.”

The state will give schools a maximum number of people allowed at a ceremony based on updated health data, Murphy said.

“The steps we are taking are necessary to ensure the health and safety of everyone in attendance,” Murphy said, “but we are equally as confident that no one will ever forget the way we will celebrate the Class of 2020.

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The governor in April said he couldn’t envision schools having in-person graduation ceremonies, but his stance began to soften in recent weeks as the state’s number of new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations dropped.

“We want to get this right, obviously,” Murphy said Friday. “Because this would be a big gathering, and it has to be done right.”

New Jersey schools remain closed for the rest of the academic year, but both Republican and Democratic state lawmakers have pressured Murphy to allow in-person ceremonies. The governor was also sued by students in Toms River who argued he acted arbitrarily in barring graduation ceremonies, even with social distancing.

Many school districts had already planned for virtual or “drive thru” graduations in June while holding out hope the governor would allow for an in-person ceremony at some point this summer. Some superintendents have already developed plans for what a socially distant ceremony could look like, including options with only students in attendance or only students and a limited number of guests.

The news was announced as New Jerseyans experienced a much different Memorial Day weekend, which is typically the unofficial start of the shore season.

Murphy marked an annual Memorial Day tradition Monday of remembering service members who have died by noting some of the state’s veterans fought in combat, but ultimately succumbed to the pandemic.

Over the weekend, Murphy said day care centers could reopen “sooner than later” in New Jersey as the state continues to roll back restrictions put in place to blunt the spread of the virus.

He also announced on Friday he’s signed an executive order allowing public and private recreational campgrounds in the state to reopen.

Gatherings of up to 25 people will now be allowed outdoors — including for church gatherings and fitness classes — as well as for outdoor recreational businesses like charter and fishing boats, driving ranges, and outdoor batting cages, under an executive order Murphy signed.

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