Montclair High School is moving ahead with plans for a virtual graduation ceremony amid some criticism from students and families, and after Gov. Phil Murphy announced that schools can now hold in-person ceremonies after July 6 with social distancing measures.

Interim Superintendent Nathan Parker said Tuesday, May 26, that because Murphy just made the announcement that morning, the school officials had not yet discussed what it would mean for Montclair’s graduation plans.

MHS Principal Anthony Grosso sent out an announcement to families early Tuesday evening. "With the announcement of Governor Murphy’s allowance for an in-person graduation starting July 6, we are carefully watching and waiting for the restrictions and protocols that are scheduled for announcement on May 27. We will use these restrictions and protocols, along with collaboration with our district and local health officials, as guidance for an in-person graduation with the inclusion of our originally planned virtual graduation," Grosso said.

"Montclair has historically graduated class sizes of over 500 students and this year will not be any different. We look to collaborate with the students and families, while following health and safety protocols, in providing the Class of 2020 with a graduation that they deserve. We look to provide and update once the state protocols and restrictions are delivered later this week."

Last Thursday, May 21, the school district sent a letter to parents stating plans are being finalized for a virtual ceremony, but did not give specifics. The graduation is planned for June 24.

“Yesterday [May 20] plans were locked down for a virtual graduation. Specifics will be coming out early next week and posted on our website,” Parker said in the letter. “Many are disappointed we will not have the traditional graduation ceremony and supporting events. I share your disappointment. My hope is graduation will still be meaningful for our wonderful graduates, families and friends. We are also working on a few surprises with the township to help our graduates remember the day.”

Parents have been critical of the district’s decision to create a virtual ceremony, rather than planning for a later date. A survey on graduation sent to all the students revealed that students were willing to wait for a later date if it meant the ceremony could be held in person with safe social distancing in place.

On Tuesday, May 26, Murphy and the Department of Education announced that graduations would open to allow ceremonies scheduled after July 6.

“I am proud to say that our graduates will have the opportunity to join their classmates and families to celebrate graduation,” said Murphy. “Despite the uncertainty of these times, our students deserve to have their hard work acknowledged and celebrate safely. We have reached a point where we feel confident moving forward and giving our graduates the send-off they have so rightly earned.”

Particulars of the plan, which was expected to be discussed on May 27 after press deadline, “balances our desire to recognize the accomplishments of our graduating students, while providing the necessary safeguards for their safety, as well as the safety of their friends, families and school staff,” said Education Commissioner Lamont O. Repollet.

In-person ceremonies will be subject to numerous restrictions. Ceremonies must be held outdoors, or be drive-in or drive-through. Indoor ceremonies will not be allowed.

Caps, gowns, diplomas and other materials must be mailed to students’ homes, or otherwise distributed in a manner that calls for social distancing. Capacity at the ceremonies must be limited, with enough staff on hand to ensure that capacity is not being exceeded, and the DOE advises that multiple ceremonies may need to be held over several days.

In addition, the ceremonies must be planned in consultation with local officials, including law enforcement and health officials.

At the most recent BOE meeting, Montclair High School parent John Little questioned why officials were not taking the wants of the seniors into account. “What was the point of a survey?” he asked.

Board member Sergio Gonzalez acknowledged that this year was not an ideal situation for the senior class and their families. “To all the seniors, I’m sorry. You had a significant time of your life upended by COVID, and you deserve the best.”

Traditionally, the ceremony would be held at Montclair High School, either in the school’s amphitheater, or in another location due to inclement weather. Following the ceremony, students board a convoy of school buses for a parade around Montclair, after which they are driven to an off-site location for an all night party. For the last few years, the party has been held at Bowlmor Lanes in White Plains, New York.

The Project Graduation committee is organizing a “Make Some Noise” for the MHS Graduates, in which families come out on their steps at 8 p.m. on June 24, at the time the convoy traditionally would be taking place, and clap, cheer and make other noises to express support for graduates.

Singer-songwriter Lily Valkili reached out to families and asked them to submit photos of their graduating seniors to include in a music video montage for the class.

On social media, some parents have floated the idea of having four different graduation ceremonies at different locations around Montclair, with seats assigned to encourage social distancing, and with large screens set up so that speakers can be seen, and with the graduates’ diplomas already placed on their assigned seats. Others suggested having a ceremony at a large outdoor location such as a football field, with limits on the number of guests who can attend.