District to keep selected in-person graduation date July 8

Graduates+celebrate+the+culmination+of+their+high+school+careers+by+attending+a+car+parade+held+on+held+on+Tuesday%2C+June+16.+District+Superintendent+Erik+Gundersen+said+that+the+in-person+graduation+ceremony+for+the+Class+of+2020+will+still+be+held+on+July+8+despite+concerns+from+seniors+and+parents+who+argue+that+the+date+interferes+with+%E2%80%9CBeach+Week%2C%E2%80%9D+a+student-organized+event+in+which+graduates+spend+the+week+at+the+beach.

Matt Austin

Graduates celebrate the culmination of their high school careers by attending a car parade held on held on Tuesday, June 16. District Superintendent Erik Gundersen said that the in-person graduation ceremony for the Class of 2020 will still be held on July 8 despite concerns from seniors and parents who argue that the date interferes with “Beach Week,” a student-organized event in which graduates spend the week at the beach.

Ilmie Xhaferi, Staff Editor

District Superintendent Erik Gundersen said that the in-person graduation ceremony for the Class of 2020 will still be held on July 8 despite concerns from seniors and parents who argue that the date interferes with “Beach Week,” a student-organized event in which graduates spend the week at the beach. 

Since the graduation ceremony occurs during “Beach Week,” a group of parents planned on protesting the graduation date on Monday, June 15.

One parent commented on a story post on The Smoke Signals Facebook page and said that she felt the “lack of empathy” for the graduates who have to endure long-distance drives is “unsettling.”

“I was surprised [that seniors and parents were upset about the graduation date] since our district was working so hard to make a graduation ceremony happen over the summer,” Gundersen said. “I was surprised at the level of frustration and quite frankly anger of some parents.”

The Smoke Signal reached out via Facebook messenger or email to three of the more outspoken parents who were advocating for the change in date.  One parent was interviewed but requested her responses be withdrawn from the article afterward. One other declined to comment, and the third did not respond to the message. 

The protest was postponed when the parents learned that Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi contacted Gundersen to potentially move the graduation date. Schepisi is a River Vale resident with a daughter who just finished her junior year at PV and has an office in Westwood.

“[Schepisi and I] had two phone conversations about the graduation date,” Gundersen said. “She shared with me her perspective and I shared with her the rationale behind why the district chose July 8. We had a very good, productive conversation.”

Schepisi said that after “at least 15 different sets of parents” from PV contacted her requesting her involvement in speaking with the district, she decided to reach out to Gundersen to help parents voice their thoughts. She also said that she has had similar conversations with parents and superintendents from other municipalities such as Ramsey High School and Northern Highlands.  

“I thought that maybe there was a disconnect in communication between school and parents,” Schepisi said. “There was a level of frustration for parents who felt as though their voices weren’t being heard and that their concerns were not being taken into consideration. They thought that possibly because of my role in the community, they would have a better chance of their position being heard.” 

Schepisi said that Gundersen did not know about Beach Week before his conversation with her, and the district was concerned about graduates attending graduation after coming from the beach having not been social distancing.

“[The district’s] concern was ‘well we don’t want kids coming back and participating in a graduation ceremony if they had been down at the beach and probably not social distancing and we don’t want them to infect others,” Schepisi said. “My response was ‘let’s have it a couple of days prior to Beach Week or have it two weeks after Beech Week so you don’t have to worry about it.” 

Schepisi said that she offered to facilitate conversation with her office, the governor’s office, and the Board of Education to move the graduation date, but the Board rejected her offer.

“I think that once the Board made up their minds and selected that date, they had no desire to change it,” Schepisi said. “I think the date probably was selected based upon other considerations. I don’t think the date they selected was arbitrary but I do think it’s unfortunate that in selecting the date, they were unaware of this time-honored tradition.” 

Gundersen said the soonest the district can realistically hold an in-person graduation is July 8. 

“The earliest that we could hold a graduation date was July 6 but that date wouldn’t make sense because the district would be closed through July 1 to July 5 because of the July 4 holiday,” Gundersen said. “There’s a lot of set up that goes into graduation. July 7 we were prohibited from having graduation because it’s primary day in New Jersey, so the next earliest date that was feasible to us was July 8.” 

Gundersen said that the district solicited feedback from a survey that was sent out to the Class of 2020 and their parents on May 29. The survey requested students’ input regarding when an in-person ceremony would take place and whether parents should attend the ceremony. While 342 seniors out of 492 seniors, 586 parents out of 725 parents responded to the survey.

“This was a survey to gauge feedback. It wasn’t a vote where there was going to be by majority rules a date selected based solely by that vote,” Gundersen said. “The information that we got from that surely helped the board make a decision that July 8 would be the appropriate date.”

In addition to the in-person graduation ceremony, seniors also had the opportunity to celebrate the culmination of their high school careers by attending a car parade of graduates held on Tuesday, June 16 and taking part in a pre-filmed ceremony that was released the same date. Both events were planned before the district was allowed to host an in-person graduation date.

“I know there are going to be a group of parents who are going down to the shore,” Gundersen said. “My response to the people that have made plans on whether they are going down the shore or somewhere else is that this is an optional event for students. I hope they attend, but I certainly understand if  they make the decision not to attend.”