Gundersen announces hybrid graduation
May 18, 2020
An initial announcement regarding the possibility of an in-person graduation ceremony, if state regulations allowed for it, was released in an email sent to the parents and students of the Class of 2020 by district Superintendent Erik Gundersen on May 7. However, Gundersen later announced the district’s plan to hold a hybrid graduation in an email sent on Friday afternoon.
Video, parade planned for Class of 2020
A hybrid graduation will be held on June 16, Superintendent Erik Gundersen announced in an email to the students and parents of the Class of 2020 Friday afternoon.
A video of graduates walking across a stage with a diploma will be created and include pre-filmed graduation speeches. Appointments will be made for graduates and their immediate families to come to PV and take a photo wearing their cap and gown to be featured in the video.
“There will still be words from the principal, myself, the valedictorian, the salutatorian, there will be students who are speaking, and then also a recognition of each and every single graduating senior,” Gundersen said.
There will also include a parade of cars which will go throughout the community and end in the school’s parking lot. At the end of the parade, socially distanced faculty, staff, and administration will cheer students on and Interim Principal John Puccio will give each graduate a “diploma.”
“With everything that’s going on, obviously what’s in [the district’s] control is limited, but I do think that they did a good job under the circumstances,” said Dani Menendez, secretary of the Senior Class Council.
Menendez said that while the email sent on Friday provided seniors with “an overview” of what graduation will look like, many were upset by the announcement that all graduates would wear a green gown with a white stole. Traditionally, boys wear green gowns and girls wear white gowns for graduation.
“[The decision] was kind of just sprung on us,” Menendez said. “We found out just this week that we’re wearing green. For the last four years, at least for the last three months of quarantine, we were still wearing white for whenever graduation was. It was upsetting, but with everything else that’s going on, for that to be the most upsetting thing, I guess it’s kind of a win in a sense.”
The announcement came following confusion caused by an email sent on May 7 that Gundersen initially released to parents and students who had “made it abundantly clear they want an in-person graduation.” The email stated the district’s intention to have an in-person graduation ceremony if the “the law at that time” allowed for it and if it met social distancing requirements.
“We [originally] thought we could even split up graduation into three or four separate graduation ceremonies to have enough space to provide students with a little bit of a traditional experience,” Gundersen said.
The email led to backlash and various community members voicing their opinions on the possibility of an in-person graduation ceremony on Facebook. A post displaying strong opposition to the idea was made by PV alum Hana Shapiro and was met with responses from the Class of 2020. The situation is being “handled and investigated” by Puccio, Gundersen said in an interview. Puccio did not make himself available for comment.
“I think that everybody has to remember that, regardless of what your opinions are, emotions are high right now,” Gundersen said in an interview. “We just have to remember that this is a difficult time for a lot of people and everybody needs to cut everyone just a little bit of slack.”
While the district originally intended to organize an in-person ceremony, the State Department of Education announced on May 8 that “only virtual graduation ceremonies can be planned” due to gatherings of individuals for parties, celebrations, and other social events being prohibited.
“It’s exactly what most seniors don’t want,” Gundersen said. “They want to be able to get together on a field and celebrate, but we can’t do that. We simply aren’t allowed to.”
While some schools in Bergen County had released plans prior to the governor’s announcement on May 8 to have a graduation ceremony in July and August, it is still against the law for the school to hold a traditional graduation ceremony and a senior prom later in the year.
“Senior prom is organized and run by the school district,” Gundersen said. “There’s nothing that prevents parents or students from getting together at some venue, but you certainly can’t call it a senior prom.”
Gundersen said the district is “trying to keep things simple and flexible” and will continue to plan accordingly with guidelines provided by the state.
“My heart breaks for the seniors,” Gundersen said. “Senior year, especially the end of senior year, is like a right of passage. You’ve worked for 13 years in school and it’s an opportunity to reminisce, celebrate, be together with your friends and fellow students, and be recognized for all the hard work you’ve put in. That’s being taken away from them and that’s a hard thing to take.”
PV seniors and alumni debate over graduation
The pandemic has brought about trying times all over the world – including within the Pascack Valley community. These frustrations flared on Friday, May 8 following backlash to an email sent out by district Superintendent Erik Gundersen, stating “Parents and students have made it abundantly clear they want an in-person graduation, and we are in the process of planning one.”
Hana Shapiro, a 2016 PV graduate, was the primary advocate against a potential in-person graduation, making a Facebook post expressing her concerns and encouraging others to reach out to Gundersen to do the same.
“I did not feel that it would be safe, regardless of what the state says, should the Pascack Valley school district hold an in-person graduation,” Shapiro said. “The reason for me saying that is because there is so much that is unknown about this coronavirus.”
Following her post, Shapiro began receiving an abundance of comments both agreeing and disagreeing with her message, many of the latter coming from current PV seniors and parents. Shapiro said the post received “a huge onslaught of hurtful and offensive comments” from a multitude of community members.
However, Senior Class Council President Emily Kennedy emphasized that, while the comment section did “get out of hand,” the intention of the grade was not to come off as offensive or threatening.
“Most of us were just giving our opinions about how we are upset that our second semester and all of the fun events of senior year have been taken away from us,” Kennedy said. “And to see so much taken away from us in such a short period of time and then see a public Facebook post of someone trying to take more away from us — [it] definitely angered a lot of people.”
Kennedy also stressed that those who left inappropriate comments are “not an [accurate] representation” of the Class of 2020.
Allison Toledo, another 2016 PV graduate, took Shapiro’s side and was able to encapsulate their concerns over a potential in-person graduation.
“I totally sympathize [with the seniors] — it is a really difficult situation for everyone,” Toledo said. “With that being said, I think there are very real public health concerns that involve not just the people who would attend a theoretical in-person graduation, but the entire [surrounding] area.”
She also noted the importance of considering “the worst case scenario” and thinking about “what could go wrong.”
Kennedy agreed that safety is the priority while also expressing trust that the administration would have only held the in-person ceremony if risk could be minimalized.
“What [Shapiro] said was valid,” Kennedy said. “Having an in-person graduation ceremony [could] be a danger to the community, but the school would not go about it without considering the safety of others.”
While disappointed in the manner of a number of responses, Shapiro said that the seniors’ “feelings are valid” and that she could relate to the emotions that many seniors are feeling at this time, though to a lesser extent.
“I’m sure that I don’t have 100% of a grasp on the emotions that [the seniors] are feeling at this time,” Shapiro said. “While I also had my college graduation cancelled, my college graduation [consists of] thousands of people and it is not as strong of a community as Pascack Valley is.”
As this entire debacle is now in hindsight following the post being made private, it has become clear that it was all over an in-person ceremony that is highly unlikely to happen regardless.
“Just a couple hours [after sending out the email about a potential in-person graduation], the [New Jersey] governor came out and said we can’t do anything except for virtual graduation ceremonies,” Gundersen said in an email to the Class of 2020 and its parents on Friday afternoon.
Gundersen said the district is taking a “hybrid approach” to graduation, ensuring that there is no human-to-human contact while still incorporating an in-person component to the ceremony. While there can be no in-person ceremony, the plan is highlighted by a car parade to go along with a possible in-person gathering during the summer if state regulations allow.“I want each of you to know we have been working tirelessly to educate and celebrate our students, especially the Class of 2020,” Gundersen said. “Please know that with each circumstance and each decision, the well-being of students is first and foremost on everyone’s mind.”