BOSTON, Mass. – A growing number of U.S. colleges are canceling or curtailing graduation ceremonies amid fears that the coronavirus pandemic will stretch into spring, with some schools exploring “virtual” alternatives or planning to reschedule commencements.
As students on other campuses await decisions, some are organizing their own unofficial celebrations as they brace for the worst.
The University of Michigan on Friday canceled all spring graduation events and other large campus gatherings. In a message to students, President Mark Schlissel said he knew it was disappointing but added that school officials are “looking at ways to celebrate 2020 graduates in the future.”
Others canceling graduation ceremonies include Brigham Young University, Grinnell College, West Texas A&M, Grambling State and the Savannah College of Art and Design. Dozens of others say it's too early to decide, leaving families uncertain about whether to book flights and hotels, and students wondering whether to purchase caps and gowns for the walk across the stage.
Graduation decisions are being made at the same time colleges scramble to move instruction online and send students home, a shift happening at dozens of schools in an attempt to curb spread of the virus. Students have been abruptly dismissed at schools from Harvard to the University of Alaska, and many schools say they shouldn't plan to return this term.
At Grinnell College, officials told students to leave by March 23 and said there will be no “traditional” graduation ceremony. Instead, the private school of 1,700 in Iowa is mulling how it could honor graduating seniors in an online ceremony. Officials are also debating whether to bring seniors back in 2021 and host a ceremony for two classes at once.
“We want to be celebrate and cherish our students,” said Anne Harris, the college's dean and vice president for academic affairs. "But we were following the logic: If we’re sending everybody out, why would we bring everybody back in?”
Grambling State, a historically black university in Louisiana, announced Friday that seniors will get diplomas mailed to them and can participate in a future ceremony.
Some students say they understand the need for caution but would feel robbed if they missed a milestone that they spent years working to reach.
At Wesleyan University in Connecticut, which is still weighing options, senior Melisa Olgun said commencement is a celebration not only of her college career but also the sacrifices that her parents, immigrants from Turkey, made to get her there. Olgun is the first in her family to graduate from a U.S. university and wants her mother to see her accept her diploma.
“This diploma is not just for myself. It's for my family, it's for my parents,” Olgun said. “That ability to stand on that stage, to do that, is something I’ve been thinking of and dreaming of since I was a young girl.”
Still, she feels conflicted about a possible cancellation. “On one hand I'm very sad, but I also acknowledge the seriousness of the situation and I'm trying to be rational and understanding about that," she said.
Officials at Cornell University said they still hope to host their traditional ceremony but don't know if it will be possible. Florida International University told students that events are expected to proceed but said officials are also working on “possible alternative plans.” Vanderbilt University says it plans to host spring exercises but “will continue to evaluate that decision.”
On other campuses, as students wonder if their ceremonies will be canceled, some are planning impromptu events of their own.
At Wellesley College, a women's school near Boston, seniors are planning an “unofficial graduation” where students will be able to announce their names and majors to be recognized by classmates. They say it's important for low-income students and others who might not be able to return even if the spring event continues. But they're also working to keep attendance below 250, following a state order barring events of that size or larger.
Similar celebrations were organized at Smith College and Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, along with the University of Maine. But at Michigan, the president discouraged gatherings and asked students to “limit interactions in groups," saying they should practice social distancing even in smaller groups.
The coronavirus has infected around 128,000 people worldwide and killed over 4,700. The death toll in the U.S. climbed to 39, with over 1,300 infections.
For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illnesses, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the virus in a matter of weeks.
Schools say they're following the advice of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and state health officials who are recommending against mass gatherings as the virus spreads. Governors in some states have called for limits on large events. But schools say it's hard to forecast where things will stand in two months, and some say it would be premature to cancel.
Some colleges, however, said they're canceling now so they don't force parents to scuttle their plans at the last minute.
Berea College in Kentucky was among the first to cancel graduation, telling students it would be rescheduled “to a date when such a gathering can be conducted safely.” Officials said they were erring on the side of caution but still want to honor graduating seniors.
“They’ve worked hard and we want to recognize all that they've accomplished. But we want to do that in a way that protects them and doesn’t jeopardize their safety," said Tim Jordan, a school spokesman.
Canceling commencement can carry financial implications for schools. Some spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on ceremonies featuring celebrity speakers, dining spreads and other displays of pomp and circumstance. At the University of Michigan, students were expecting to hear a keynote address from former Vice President Al Gore.
Some, including Tulane University, are already announcing that, in case of a cancellation, students will be refunded for their regalia purchases.
At the Florida Institute of Technology, officials are scaling back graduation without eliminating it entirely. The school’s spring ceremony will be broken into several smaller events, with only students allowed to attend. Families will be able to watch online, and graduates can return for future exercises in the fall or summer.
Some students at California State University, Sacramento, were disappointed to hear that certain graduation events had been canceled even before campus classes were suspended. The school said it hasn't made a decision about commencement but called off other activities, including hooding ceremonies and cultural celebrations.
It's rare but not unprecedented for colleges to cancel graduations. Universities across the nation scrapped ceremonies in 1970 amid protests over the Vietnam War. More recently, ceremonies in Florida and Texas have been halted amid dangerous storms, but they were later rescheduled.
At Harvard University, which has yet to make a decision, senior Tom Osborn is now wondering whether his family from Migori, Kenya, should cancel their plans to visit for graduation. The school, which is sending students home this week, said officials are “working on contingency plans” even though it's too soon to make a call.
“It was going to be my family’s first time to campus. They were all excited,” said Osborn, who is studying psychology. “It’s unfortunate. I hope things will still work out.”
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