In Person or Virtual? Covid Complicates College Commencements

With vaccinations on the rise, many colleges are planning in-person commencements, sowing frustration on campuses sticking to online ones.

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Her first reaction after receiving the email from the University of Tampa announcing that commencement would be conducted online was to cry. Up and down the spine of Florida, larger colleges were announcing plans for in-person graduations — so why not hers? Then 22-year-old Allison Clark dried her tears and turned to Instagram, asking her followers: If Tampa hosted an in-person graduation, would they attend?

When 80 percent of the respondents said “Yes,” she and two classmates created a GoFundMe and started selling tickets. They were quickly overwhelmed as classmates and their parents pitched in more than $25,000 — significantly more than the $12,000 price tag for the convention center they are renting for their self-funded graduation, now scheduled for next week.

There will not be too many do-it-yourself graduations, but across the country parents and graduates will confront commencements in May that are as atypical, modified and sometimes contentious as the past school year has been.

Many of the schools doing in-person ceremonies are putting in extensive safety measures, like the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, which is requiring graduates and their families to provide proof of vaccination, or else a negative coronavirus test, said the university’s president, Heidi M. Anderson. Rhodes College is seating participants in pods of eight and issuing each person a ticket for the purpose of contact tracing.

Vanderbilt University and Northeastern University are among those staggering arrival times at the ceremony, so that students enter the venue in shifts, reducing the size of each gathering.

Most colleges are placing restrictions on the number of guests each graduate is allowed to bring. Brown and Yale Universities are among schools that only allow students to the ceremony. Parents can watch a livestreamed version.

But in the second year of the pandemic, with millions vaccinated, more campuses than not are choosing to do in-person events, according to Mildred Garcia, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. As a result, campuses that are sticking to virtual-only ceremonies have become outliers, sometimes breeding frustration.

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Ms. Stange with her graduation cords at the Tampa Convention Center. She and her classmates raised $25,000 for their ceremony.Credit…Zack Wittman for The New York Times

“To be with my classmates, to walk across the stage, to receive the diploma that we all worked so hard for, it means absolutely everything, and a 45-minute virtual commencement of my name being scrolled across the screen just simply wasn’t enough,” says Ms. Clark at the University of Tampa.

Especially vexing for the graduating senior was learning that the University of Florida — which is graduating a class five times larger than the private college in Tampa — was planning on an in-person ceremony. So are the University of South Florida, Florida State University and the University of Miami, all of them significantly larger than Tampa, which has an undergraduate enrollment of less than 9,000 students.

In an emailed statement, a university spokesman, Eric Cardenas, reiterated what college leaders told the student body two months ago when they announced plans for a virtual-only event: “Simply put, given the continued uncertainty of Covid-19, advice from public health officials and rules governing large gatherings, the university could not realistically host a safe — yet meaningful — academic celebration.”

Peter Hotez, the co-director of the Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development, said that universities — as well as unhappy parents and graduates complaining about virtual commencements — were overlooking a common-sense solution.

“The answer is very simple,” he said. “By July or August, we should have a dramatic decline in transmission because the amount of vaccine coverage would be dramatically increased by then,” he explained. “Just postpone graduation to the end of the summer.”

He added that universities — especially ones that are in proximity to one another, or that are part of a consortium like the Big Ten athletic conference — should have a uniform approach, since the lack of coordination sows confusion. “The best thing to do is not have one school do one thing, and another school do another,” he said.

But that coordination is not happening, and because each institution is making its own decision, the result is an uneven landscape.

Sometimes, campuses within walking distance are choosing radically different approaches. In Massachusetts, Harvard University announced that its seniors would graduate virtually and their diplomas would be mailed to them, while just two miles away, Boston University will be hosting an in-person graduation.

Not all online graduations have generated a backlash, and only a handful of institutions have faced public and sustained protest. But in some cases, parents and students have made their displeasure known.

Tammy Dahlstrom, whose 22-year-old daughter is graduating this weekend from the University of Michigan, said the contrast with nearby institutions had made the university’s decision to hold an online event difficult to accept.

The Ann Arbor campus is built around the university’s iconic stadium, which is capable of seating more than 100,000 people — and is both the largest in the country, and one of the largest in the world.

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Michigan Stadium in 2020. In early March, the University of Michigan administration announced that graduating seniors would be allowed to go into the stadium to take pictures.Credit…Gregory Shamus/Getty Image

Yet campuses in Michigan with far less outdoor seating capacity are going ahead with in-person events, like Michigan State University, which announced it would hold 50 staggered ceremonies to ensure social distancing, and the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus. Michigan is one of the only Big Ten schools to opt for a virtual commencement.

“It is inconceivable that we would be in the same position this year when the university had a year to plan,” said Ms. Dahlstrom in an email.

Parents began an email and text message campaign to try to get the administration to change its plan. A petition garnered close to 6,000 names.

When that still did not move the needle, Ms. Dahlstrom drove the two and a half hours from her home in North Muskegon, on the shore of Lake Michigan, to join a small group of parents and students who stood on the streets of Ann Arbor, holding up placards demanding an in-person ceremony.

Michigan has one of the highest coronavirus caseloads in the country, and hospitals have been overwhelmed, but parents point to numerous other campuses across the state that are choosing to do in-person commencements.

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Rick Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the university, said the spike in cases in the state justified the university’s caution.

“The situation is still very precarious in Michigan with regard to the virus,” he said.

He also cautioned that the comparison to other universities is not apples-to-apples because of the international character of the school’s student body: “Dearborn made a different decision, but almost all of their students are local,” he said. “Ours come from all over the state of Michigan and all over the country, and around the world.”

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A rally in March in support of in-person graduation at the University of Michigan.Credit…Dominick Sokotoff/The Michigan Daily

Possibly because of pressure from the parent group, the university has made a number of changes. In early March, the administration announced that graduating seniors would be allowed to go into the stadium to take pictures.

Following continued pressure, the university announced in late March that students would be allowed to watch the graduation on a screen, while sitting inside the stadium.

Calder Lewis, an editor for the university’s daily newspaper who covered the protest, said parents were more engaged in the pushback than students were. “For a lot of parents, this is their kids’ last chance to get something normal out of their college experience, and they want to see just one last send-off,” he said.

The decision on what kind of commencement to hold is particularly charged at universities where a majority of students are the first in their family to go to college.

“It is a generational celebration,” said Dr. Anderson, who was herself the first in her family to graduate and now heads the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, where a majority of students are in the same category.

That is the same calculus that pushed Montclair State University to become one of the only campuses in New Jersey to hold an in-person ceremony last year, despite a letter of objection signed by 120 faculty members. (It is having an in-person ceremony this year, too.)

Other campuses face similar issues.

“We get an average of eight family members per graduate,” said Tomas D. Morales, the president of California State University in San Bernardino, where 85 percent of students are the first in their families to attend college, he said. “To have a commencement and not be able to invite mom and dad, or abuela and abuelo or cousins and siblings doesn’t work for our campus.”

It is precisely because of the generational importance of the ceremony that his campus followed the plan proposed by Dr. Hotez — it decided to do a virtual event this spring, followed by a traditional commencement at a later point.

Meanwhile in Tampa, the three organizers of the do-it-yourself graduation are pulling out all the stops to give their classmates a real commencement, even as the university has made it clear that it does not endorse it. Attendees will receive a 10-page program. A video and slideshow tribute featuring each participating senior will play before the graduate walks across the stage of the rented convention hall.

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From left, Ms. Stange, Ms. Steele and Ms. Clark at the Tampa Convention Center. They have prepared a printed program and video tributes for their ceremony.Credit…Zack Wittman for The New York Times

Because the students are not authorized to give out diplomas to their classmates, the organizers have instead printed certificates marking the occasion, which will be laid out on a table — a no-contact approach in a nod to safety protocols.

“This is a moment that every kid dreams of growing up,” said Emma Stange, one of the organizers. “To not really have that celebratory closure when you move on to the next stage of life, it just leaves an open, hanging end.”

Amelia Nierenberg contributed reporting. Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

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