Like countless other high school seniors across New Jersey, Isabella Ghanbary and her best friends and co-plaintiffs Arianna Wilent and Gina DiPasquale had been waiting for this moment for much, if not most, of their lives.
“I feel like we’ve spent 12, 13 years kind of waiting to get to the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Ghanbary, 18, student-journalist, thespian and senior at Toms River High School East, who for as long as she can remember had been looking forward to the kind of graduation ceremony she’s seen in movies and TV.
“And right now, for us, I kind of feel like we’re at the end but we’re all still in the dark."
Ghanbary, Wilent and DiPasquale are plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking to overturn a ban on in-person high school graduation ceremonies imposed May 8 by the state Department of Education. The education department’s ban stemmed from executive orders by Gov. Phil Murphy declaring a public health emergency over the coronavirus pandemic, barring large public gatherings, and, on May 4, keeping schools closed through the end of the academic year.
“Had this decision been made across the board and no one was able to be doing anything else, it might at least feel like everyone was being treated equally,” Ghanbary said. “But to see that people are gong to be able to be out going to the beach and doing all these things, but we can’t have a graduation ceremony, it just doesn’t seem fair.”
The lawsuit, filed May 14 in Superior Court in Ocean County, charges the governor and state education officials acted arbitrarily in barring graduation ceremonies, even with social distancing. The suit is scheduled for a hearing in Toms River on May 29.
A spokesperson for Murphy, Alyana Alfara, said the governor does not comment on pending litigation. An education department spokesman, Michael Yaple, said the same thing.
Murphy has touched on the subject of graduations, including during the governor’s daily press briefing on Tuesday, when he did not rule out allowing in-person ceremonies.
“I was asked yesterday, do they have a right to have hope that we could still find a way?” Murphy said Tuesday. “And they do have a right to have hope. But I would add to that, bear with us. We’re trying to figure this one out, and I hope sooner than later.”
On Friday, responding to questions about pressure to allow graduation ceremonies, Murphy said that he hopes to “have some guidance” on that by next week.
“We want to get this right, obviously,” he said. “Because this would be a big gathering, and it has to be done right.”
Other plaintiffs in Ghanbary’s suit include businesses deemed non-essential charging that they have been unfairly barred from fully operating, while box stores or other businesses are permitted to sell the same products or offer the same services because part of their operation is essential.
Similar assertions have been lodged against the Democratic governor by Republican lawmakers in a separate suit filed this week.
But a backlash against the ban on in-person graduations has been gathering momentum not only among Republican lawmakers — not to mention students, parents, and school officials — but also Murphy’s fellow Democrats, including state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester).
On Thursday, Sweeney sent a letter to Murphy urging the governor to consider a request by 14 school superintendents in Gloucester County “to permit voluntary, in-person graduations for high school seniors.”
The superintendents had written to Sweeney and to Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) last week imploring the lawmakers to weigh in on what they viewed as the administration’s double-standard for school graduations versus business operations.
“Our seniors have been told it is unsafe to conduct in-person graduation ceremonies yet they bear witness to seemingly endless lines of law-abiding citizens gathering outside liquor stores, big box home improvement retailers, and membership-only warehouse clubs,” the superintendents wrote in their May 12 letter.
In an interview, State Senator Vin Gopal (D-Ocean) told NJ Advance Media that he supported, “safe and responsible,” ceremonies. He was also concerned about the impact of depriving budding adults of one of the most memorable experiences of their lives, particularly in light of more relaxed conditions on other events or locations.
“That’s one of my biggest fears coming out of COVID-9, the [damage to] mental health it’s going to cause,” added Gopal. “If we can do this safely and responsibly, we should.”
Gopal said Murphy can retain the public’s trust whether he lifts the ban or not by providing the same kind of data to justify his decision that he did when citing a flattening of the new case curve when announcing the conditional reopening of state parks and beaches.
On Friday, state Sen. Troy Singleton (D-7th District) who represents eastern Burlington County, entered the fray, releasing a statement asserting that graduations are a “once-in-a-lifetime milestone that must not be missed,” adding he is “confident that our school districts can accommodate socially-distanced, outdoor ceremonies that are appropriate.”
GOP legislators who have come out in favor of in-person graduations include Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Bergen, Passaic); Sen. Declan O’ Scanlon (R-Monmouth) and Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso (R-Monmouth); and the Senate minority leader, Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union, Somerset, Morris).
“Holding ceremonies outside with social distancing policies in place will ensure seniors are not deprived of this important memory,” Kean said in a statement Tuesday. “I am calling for school districts and health officials to work together to ensure New Jersey’s graduates can commemorate their accomplishments as they move on to the next chapter of their lives.”
Gopal said he came out in favor of responsible in-person ceremonies after talking to a pair of medical doctors who are also elected officials, Mayor Theresa Berger of Howell and Ocean Township Councilwoman Margie Donlon. On Facebook, Berger told others to “join me in urging Governor Murphy to allow Howell students to have a graduation...As a medical doctor and as the Mayor of Howell, I strongly believe we can have graduations responsibly, with social distancing, in a big outdoor area.”
The suit by Ghanberry and her classmates includes a seating chart featuring the Toms River East Raiders football field overlaid with a honeycomb-like grid, where up to 1,140 students could be seated at least 7.5 feet apart. With just 350 students in the East Class of 2020, the suit asserts, a socially distanced ceremony could be easily accommodated.
The lawyer who filed the suit, Michael Deem, whose own son is a High School East senior, said the graphic illustrates that the graduation ban makes no sense in the context of other easing of virus-related restrictions, including the governor’s order opening beaches to groups of up to 10 that are required merely to spread their towels at least six feet from other groups. Deem said it was a friend and fellow High School East parent, Dennis Rome, who developed the seating chart.
“When he showed me that chart, we discussed it, and using his mathematical background, I decided that I could take that chart and use my skills and do something about this,” Deem said. “I have a son who’s graduating as well — Justin, he’s 18 — so, we got to talking and we saw that we could clearly do this if the schools permit.”
Deem said they sent the graphic to Toms River Regional School District Superintendent David Healy, but were told, “his hands were tied,” by the state education department’s directive. Healy sent a May 12 letter informing parents and students that there would be no in-person ceremony and citing the departmental ban.
So, Deem said, “we started thinking about the realities of this and how it’s being applied in a discriminatory fashion, I just decided, you know, we need to take a stand and do something about this.”
The New Jersey School Boards Association website provides examples of what various districts plan to do under the ban, including virtual and drive-by ceremonies. The association does not have a position on whether in-person ceremonies should be allowed, said NJSBA Executive Vice President Frank Belluscio. Whatever eventually happens, Belluscio added, “Above all else, the concern is the health and safety of the students and staff, and the parents, too.”
For Ghanbary, who’s known as Bella, the prospect of missing out on graduation would add insult to the injury she and other students have repeatedly suffered throughout the coronavirus outbreak, which has coincided with spring term of their senior year, ordinarily a kind of victory lap for seniors finally finishing up four years of classes, exams and homework.
Instead, they’ve seen the cancellation of their final months together in class and on campus, playing spring sports, acting and singing plays, attending their prom, meeting in clubs, and other activities, not to mention having sunny lunches off campus, going to parties, and doing everything else that might have made for the most cherished memories of their high school years.
Ghanbary played the role of Sandy in her school musical, “Grease,” in March. But the cast never played to a full house, thanks to virus-related limits on capacity. And then classes were canceled immediately afterward.
“This is so important to so many seniors in the Toms River school district and the entire state of New Jersey,” Ghanbary said of the final farewells many hoped to say to their classmates, teachers and schools.
“From the time that you’re little, you’re all kind of used to having that ‘High School Musical’ moment of throwing your caps in the air and looking around at all your friends for one last time, and having that so-surreal moment," she said. “And now, we’re young adults. I just can’t imagine not having photos to show my kids one day. I can’t imagine not having that moment, not having that time with the people who I care so much about.”