NJ petitions against virtual-only graduations rack up signatures
Days after state officials clarified that all graduations should be virtual while COVID-19 remains a public health emergency, there are a number of heartbroken college grads and parents of high school seniors who are not giving up their fight yet.
Jennifer Borg, whose son is a graduating senior in the class of 2020 at Sayreville War Memorial High School, is among parents still holding out "a glimmer of hope" that they might see their child walk in that cap and gown — at a socially distant ceremony of sorts, where at least the graduates might be present in-person.
Borg's son, Xander, is on the autism spectrum, having been diagnosed with Aspergers at the age of 3. He is an honors student bound for Rutgers University to double major in computer science and math.
“He has overcome so many obstacles in his life. As I watched every little victory, I would often think about how it would feel watching him walk across that stage at Bomber Stadium in Sayreville on graduation day,” Borg said in an online petition she started last Saturday, which has since garnered nearly 2,000 signatures.
Another petition, started by fellow New Jersey mother Lisa Gyongyosi, has attracted nearly 25,000 supporters.
Gyongyosi is a Sussex County resident, according to her husband's Facebook page, which says the family lives in Byram.
That petition, addressed to Gov. Phil Murphy, says "The parents of the graduating class of 2020 find it very unreasonable for you to ban all graduation ceremonies other than virtual ones. While we understand the severity of the health crisis we are facing we believe that our seniors have been waiting for this moment for many years and it does not have to be an all or nothing option."
Both of those petitions point to the governor's administration being willing to reopen parks, beaches and boardwalks as well as retail stores, as examples of why supporters feel that school district leaders should be allowed to try and come up with "out of the box" ideas, as Borg puts it.
A petition started earlier during the pandemic by graduating high school senior, Mackenzie Horvath of Jackson, has racked up more than 32,000 signatures as the issue continues to gain attention since the state's guidance was issued.
A petition called "Newark, NJ High School Graduations Held At County & State Parks," started by Nekeisha Delgarde and Angel Williams, has outlined a 13-step plan. It calls for socially distant ceremonies of no more than 100 students at a time at local parks on a staggered schedule. Since it was created a week ago, the petition has been signed nearly 1,000 times.
There also have been a few college graduates urging their schools to reschedule ceremonies for when the celebrations might be held live instead of virtually.
New Jersey Institute of Technology has canceled its in-person graduation ceremony at Prudential Center in Newark amid the pandemic, prompting a petition started by Sahiti Seetamraju. As of Tuesday, that petition was close to its goal of 5,000 signatures.
"For first-generation college students, to the students who worked part-time jobs just to receive an education, having the opportunity to be recognized for this achievement is an event that students and their families look forward to for years," Seetamraju noted, urging NJIT President Joel Bloom to instead postpone live commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2020 undergraduate, masters, and doctoral graduates.
A separate petition directed at Rutgers University also urges the school to reschedule in-person ceremonies, rather than cancel them altogether, with virtual ceremonies instead.
"Our students have worked way too hard to have this ceremonial event be taken away from them so abruptly. Many first-generation students (who make up a good percentage of the university) will not have the chance to walk across the stage if the university does not hold the ceremony," according to the petition started by "S.E.", which has attracted roughly 6,000 signatures.
Among those missing out on being recognized for accomplishments in-person, are valedictorians across the state's high schools and colleges.
At Princeton University, Nicholas Johnson, of Montreal, is the first black valedictorian in the Ivy League school's history. Princeton has announced that in addition to a virtual commencement on May 31, the school has delayed an in-person ceremony until May 2021.
There should be no assembling of graduates in-person, anywhere in New Jersey, during the pandemic, State Police Superintendent Pat Callahan said Monday, clearing up guidelines issued last weekend.
"Wave parades" remain OK for an individual graduate and immediate family members to watch loved ones in vehicles driving by, Callahan said, but "the summonsing of people to gather together, that’s the issue."
Callahan said people getting out of cars to assemble, whether on a football field, at at town hall or outside a school - are all part of the behavior that the guidelines are meant to discourage.
"I will always advocate for my son and I am willing to deal with the backlash; but as long as I know in my heart that I am doing all that I can... I mean, that's important," Borg said.
She added, "We have to teach our kids to stand up for what they believe in and that's what I've done. And I hope, I hope they understand one day. That's all I can wish and pray for."