Princeton public schools to have virtual graduations; administrators already try to plan for next school year

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Princeton Public Schools officials’ hopes that students and teachers would abandon the virtual classroom and return to the real classroom were dashed when Gov. Phil Murphy extended school building closures through the end of the school year.

The public school buildings have been closed since mid-March to prevent the spread of COVID-19. School district officials held out hope that students would be able to return to the school buildings before the end of the 2019-20 school year.

Murphy opted to keep the school buildings closed through June 30, citing the need to protect the health of the state’s 1.6 million public and private school students and thousands of teachers, administrators and support staff.

“I know we all knew this was a possibility, but it still took a toll in hearing it in reality,” Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane said.

While Murphy’s decision means students and staff will not be able to come together in person before the end of June, Cochrane expressed gratitude toward the governor “for making a decision based on what is best for the health of our students, our staff and our state.”

Turning to end-of-year milestones such as Princeton High School graduation and moving-on ceremonies for the elementary and middle school students, Cochrane said they would be virtual events.

The last day of school for Princeton High School students – and graduation for the Class of 2020 – is June 16, Cochrane said. It will be a virtual graduation, because large gatherings of people are not permitted.

Princeton High School Principal Jessica Baxter is putting together plans for a video that would show each senior walking across the stage to receive a diploma while wearing the traditional blue cap and gown, he said.

The Princeton High School senior awards and Gold Key awards ceremonies also will be virtual, but it is possible that other senior celebrations could be held outdoors later in the summer if restrictions are lifted, he said.

The John Witherspoon Middle School moving-on ceremony for eighth grade students, which would have been held in Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton University campus, will be a virtual event next month, Cochrane said.

The elementary school principals and the parent-teacher organizations are also considering virtual approaches to the fifth grade moving on ceremony, he said.

“The goal is to celebrate with our students the relationships, accomplishments and memories through those first few years,” Cochrane said.

Summer school is set to be virtual also, he said. If it is possible, some of those students may be brought into the schools before the end of summer to get them acclimated to the start of a new school year, he added.

Looking ahead to September, there are many details that need to be worked out before students can have in-person instruction, Cochrane said. The district has established a Re-entry Leadership Team of nearly 30 administrators, teachers, support staff and a couple of school board members to hammer out those details.

“We are not likely to flip a switch in September and suddenly have 4,000 students and 800 staff back in our buildings with learning happening as it always has. The reopening of schools in a climate of social distancing will pose significant and complex problems,” Cochrane said.

The issues facing school district officials range from whether students and staff will need to have their temperature taken before entering a school building, to whether they need to wear a mask.

Cleaning protocols need to be determined, as well as how to handle social distancing protocols on the school bus, in the classroom and on the playground.

Attention also will be paid to students’ emotional health in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cochrane said. The pandemic has been traumatic for adults and students, and its effects will likely be felt for some time, he said.

“As students re-enter our schools, we want to assess their emotional wellness. We want to support them individually and collectively. Schools need to be places of hope and excitement,” he said.

While some students have handled remote learning quite well, others have not, Cochrane said. School district officials will work to find a way to address the gaps or losses in learning that some students experienced as they tried to learn remotely, he said.

Summing up, Cochrane said that it is clear that the “new normal” will differ from the pre-COVID-19 normal.

“Nevertheless, as we all adjust, I hope we can hold onto the silver lining of our response to this crisis – of flexibility, creativity, patience, partnership, and of care, compassion, grit and gratitude,” Cochrane said.