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Colleges and Universities Plan for Fall Commencement Amid COVID-19

As the semester winds down, colleges and universities across the country are making plans for fall commencement ceremonies.

However, as new COVID-19 cases reach over 200,000 a day in the United States, many institutions are choosing to either cancel their ceremonies or host them remotely.

Dr. William Raynovich

At Chicago State University (CSU), the virtual commencement in December will celebrate spring, summer and fall graduates.

“We actually cancelled the ceremony last spring,” said Dr. William Raynovich, associate professor in CSU’s music department. “The pandemic shutdown was severe in Chicago making the ceremony impossible to do. The College of Pharmacy did have a hooding ceremony of sorts, and in watching that ceremony, we have been improving the commencement ceremony for this celebration.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot was named as this year’s commencement speaker. While in office, Lightfoot, Chicago’s first Black female mayor, established the Racial Equity Rapid Response Team as well as the COVID-19 Recovery Task Force to address COVID-19. She also plans to raise Chicago’s minimum wage to $15 by 2021.

Remarks will also be made by CSU President Zaldwaynaka Scott, and faculty and administrators will offer congratulatory messages to graduates in a video montage.

“The commencement committee is doing all it can to make this a special moment,” said Raynovich, who is also the Grand Marshall of Commencement for CSU. “We really understand that these are unprecedented times. We are doing our best to create a special experience for the students.”

Similarly, West Liberty University (WLU) also plans to conduct a virtual ceremony. Around 133 fall semester graduates and 35 summer graduates are expected to attend, the school reported.

“[Students should] know that the value of their degree is not diminished by a virtual ceremony,” said Dr. Stephen Greiner, president of WLU. “They have dedicated four years to their studies and the value of their degrees is solid and they should just go out and represent West Liberty University well.”

At both CSU and WLU, students had the opportunity to take graduation pictures. During the ceremonies, while names are called, pictures of the graduates will also be featured.

“It is the most difficult thing and disappointing thing for them after four years of dedicated study and work and not to be able to walk across the stage is certainly a disappointment,” said Greiner. “We wanted to make this as real as possible with the given circumstances of COVID. We certainly are taking the time to do our entire ceremony as we would for our graduation ceremony, but just doing it virtually.”

Dr. Stephen Greiner

Despite the format changes, this will be a “special ceremony” for Greiner.

“This is my last one after 20 years of being a college president,” he said. “It is unfortunate that it has to be virtual, but I understand.”

On the other hand, with mandated masks, social distancing protocols and limited guest attendance, institutions such as Mississippi State University-Meridian and Austin Peay State University (APSU) are organizing in-person December ceremonies.

APSU plans to hold four ceremonies over the course of two days to maintain social distancing and guests are limited to four. Graduates have the option to walk across the stage and, currently, 600 have registered to do so, according to APSU.

The commencement speaker at each of the ceremonies will be Dr. Minoa Uffelman, APSU professor of history.

At MSU-Meridian, in terms of COVID-19 precautions, there will be no entrance procession during the ceremony, but all graduates will walk across the stage. However, graduates and their guests, which is limited to two, must leave immediately after being honored.

Attendees are encouraged to watch for any COVID-19 symptoms such as fever, trouble breathing or loss of taste or smell. There will be opportunities to watch the ceremony remotely if an individual is unable to attend.

Mark E. Keenum, president of MSU-Meridian, is expected to deliver the commencement address.

“Obviously planning for commencement this year has been much more time intensive than in past years,” said Dr. Terry Dale Cruse, associate vice president of MSU-Meridian. “Our Meridian commencement is held in the Riley Center for Education and Performing Arts in which we have held two similar events since August. At both of those events, our staff demonstrated excellence in ensuring compliance with state and CDC guidelines. I do not anticipate any significant differences or challenges with this event.”

Though there are still unknowns for hosting next year’s spring graduation on institutions’ campuses, Greiner is optimistic for an in-person event.

“Our regular commencement committee meets to plan for an in-person ceremony,” he said. “We are hoping that we can have one, but we are fortunate enough as well to have a backup with our own TV station to be able to broadcast a virtual ceremony. We are still planning on having a live ceremony in spring and we will invite others back, those who wish to come back, to actually walk if they wish to do so.”

Sarah Wood can be reached at swood@diverseeducation.com.