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For colleges and universities, fingers are crossed for in-person graduations

Roommates, from left, Harrison Loef, 21; Nate Goldfarb, 22; Matthieu Lebreton, 21; and Faris Bseiso, 22, will be graduating this spring from Georgetown University in Washington. The university’s commencement plans have been in flux because of the pandemic. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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College graduation-day ceremonies have never felt so up in the air.

Last year, the vast majority of schools held only virtual graduations, so students knew they wouldn’t be able to walk across a stage to cheers from their families.

But this year, with just weeks to go, some schools are still determining whether they will be able to hold an in-person commencement. And if they can, who will be able to attend? And where will it be held? And what will it look like?

As winter turned to spring and the academic finish line approached, commencement plans flipped and flopped — and flipped again. College and university leaders across the country, as well as students and parents, wanted in-person events, but the lingering coronavirus pandemic has produced spikes in infections and unprecedented uncertainty.

For Georgetown University’s Class of 2021, the limbo ended Thursday with the surprising announcement that commencement would be held in person at Nationals Park.

“It’s going to be one to remember,” said Harrison Loef, 21, a graduating senior from Los Angeles. He and his roommates, who have hunkered down for months in a townhouse near Georgetown for a strange virtual school year, were ecstatic. “Whole house was jumping with joy, cheering. Big smiles all around,” Loef said.

Many schools have opted to again hold only virtual graduations, but those planning to have an in-person event must follow state, local and their own guidelines for how to do so. And those guidelines can change as viral infection rates rise or fall, meaning that the likelihood of being able to hold an in-person event can change accordingly.

Some schools are breaking up commencement gatherings into smaller cohorts to comply with restrictions. Others are crossing state lines to allow more people to take part. Catholic University in Washington plans to hold graduation at FedEx Field in Maryland, where the Washington Football Team plays. A number of schools will allow only graduates to attend in person, with family and friends watching via live stream.

Georgetown University to hold pandemic commencement at Nationals Park

After a year of extraordinary health precautions, colleges are scrambling to ensure that commencements do not become superspreader events. Growing numbers of students, faculty members and parents have received one or more doses of coronavirus vaccine. Still, schools are mindful that the virus remains dangerous and can spread via crowds and close contact.

Georgetown’s plans zigzagged this spring. On March 23, John J. DeGioia, president of the Jesuit university in Washington, announced that the schoolwide commencement would be virtual. DeGioia held out hope that there could be some “in-person activities” for graduating students but made clear that they would be very limited. “I recognize that this is not the commencement experience that our students envisioned when they first arrived at Georgetown,” he wrote to students and families in an email.

Loef, a senior in Georgetown’s business school, was deeply distressed at that point. He has not taken any classes in person this year. But he wanted his graduation to be something much closer to normal than a remote event streamed on a computer screen. He also wanted parents of all Georgetown grads to witness the milestone. “They do a lot to get us here,” Loef said. “They deserve that moment.”

Eventually, DeGioia sent what he called an “exciting update.” The university, he wrote on Thursday, had brokered a deal with the city and the Washington Nationals baseball team to give families that highlight after a year full of stress, isolation and worry. Each graduate can bring two guests to the festivities on May 24 at Nationals Park.

In the fall, many colleges pivoted to all-remote teaching as they weathered viral outbreaks and the pandemic intensified around the country. The spring commencement season is bringing another kind of pivot to places where the public health emergency appears to be easing. This time, officials are opening campuses up — slightly.

In Northern California, Chico State University had announced in March that commencement would be virtual. That marked a continuation of what has been a mostly online school year for the entire California State University System. But on April 9, as health conditions improved in its region, Chico State reversed course and said it will hold live commencement ceremonies for graduates in its track-and-field stadium.

The catch: No guests will be allowed.

There will be 10 ceremonies, roughly an hour apiece, for graduates from the classes of 2020 and 2021 over a series of days in May. Each will get a moment to shine through a live-stream video feed that family and friends can watch remotely. When their names are called, graduates will walk onstage, pick up a scroll bearing congratulations (not the real diploma), pose for a picture and then exit. No throwing mortarboards in the air, no celebratory mobs.

“We’re honoring their achievement as something that will transform their lives and the lives of their families,” said Gayle Hutchinson, Chico State’s president. “We want to make sure when they leave us they feel embraced. A big old hug.” Hutchinson acknowledged that the “hug,” unfortunately, would be symbolic.

In ordinary times, she said, “I would be walking on the field, talking with the faculty, hugging people, shaking hands, giving high-fives, talking to moms and dads, the whole bit.” Now, she must keep her distance.

Kaylie Parr, 22, a graduating senior from Walnut Creek, Calif., said she will relish being together one last time with her Chico State classmates. To enter the stadium in caps and gowns will be a turning point, she said.

Her parents plan to rent a house in Chico to hold celebratory dinners with herextended family. They will tune in to her commencement via computer. “I know they’ll be watching and cheering me on, and being excited for me and my future,” Parr said. “I feel like I’m getting the closure that I need. By walking that stage, I’ll be more ready to jump into the next chapter.”

For college freshmen, pandemic results in a first-year experience unlike any other

But for schools in Michigan, plans for in-person ceremonies come at a time when the state has the highest covid-19 rates in the country and there is controversy over what kind of restrictions should be imposed to curb the spread of the disease. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) is keeping the state open — with a mask mandate and capacity restrictions — despite calls from health experts, including Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s top infectious-disease expert, to take tougher steps. Officials at both the University of Michigan and Michigan State University have said case rates in their communities are at low enough levels to go ahead with their plans — at least right now.

Theodora Vorias, 21, grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., dreaming of being the first in her family to attend college. She envisioned walking into the University of Michigan’s Big House, attired in cap and gown, her immigrant parents proudly watching her participate in a boisterous and joyous commencement ceremony.

That’s not going to happen for the international studies major. The university has changed its plans more than once for commencement. On Feb. 4, the school sent an email to students announcing that the May 1 commencement would be all-virtual. Vorias was disappointed, but knew other students were in similar situations.

Then on March 25, a new email came from the university’s president, Mark S. Schlissel. Students could attend in person after all, because the state had raised in-person limits at outdoor stadiums and fewer covid-19 cases were being diagnosed among students.

“It was a huge dream of my parents for me to go to UM, through my whole childhood,” Vorias said. “It was a very big deal. But when the new email came, it said no guests could be invited. My parents couldn’t come. It ruined the experience for me.”

She said she knows a lot of students who are “bummed out” and staying home, worried about catching the coronavirus. She and others attending will have to wear masks, which she said could help create a feeling of isolation. “Not being able to see people’s whole faces, I think it might take something away from the event, but we don’t have much of a choice,” Vorias said.

Rick Fitzgerald, director of public affairs and internal communications at the University of Michigan, said there will be strict safety protocols in place for students attending in person. They will be screened upon entering Michigan Stadium to make sure they have been tested recently for the virus and will walk in socially distanced and take an assigned seat.

“The planning process has been up and down,” he said. “But we were able to offer an in-person experience when things began to improve, particularly on campus and in our university community.”

At Michigan State in East Lansing, the planning has been the most complicated ever undertaken for a commencement. John Gaboury, associate provost and chair of the commencement committee, said the school will hold more than 52 ceremonies over 10 days to give students the chance of graduating in person, each with two guests. In a normal year, there are about 20 or so separate ceremonies for the university’s various schools.

Each ceremony will have its own guest speaker, who can deliver the address live or prerecord it. To stage so many ceremonies, the school is spending “easily over $750,000” — about double what commencement usually costs because of extra staffing, security, traffic control and more.

“But the money wasn’t a question,” Gaboury said. “These students and their families are part of the Spartan family. And we are doing our best to try and provide the best experience.”

A steady stream of Latino students was arriving on college campuses. Then the pandemic hit.

At the University of Maryland, creating conditions that would allow for an in-person graduation required a lot of math and a “constant pattern of creative problem-solving,” said Brian Ullmann, the university’s vice president for marketing and communication.

To meet the state and county restrictions on the size of gatherings and spacing, the state’s flagship university broke up the main graduation ceremony into two sessions that will allow for a total of 7,500 graduates and guests at each. And instead of holding graduation at its indoor sports arena, it moved it to the school’s much larger outdoor stadium. Graduates are allowed to bring two guests and will sit with those guests in bubbles of three throughout the stadium. Typically 30 or so deans, administrators and speakers would be seated on the commencement stage, but this year there will probably be just half a dozen.

Still, as the school prepares for the in-person events, it’s ready to make a switch if the pandemic situation worsens.

“We have contingencies for that,” Ullmann said. “So we are prepared to go full virtual if we have to. And keep in mind that that could come from a spike in the state, a spike in the county or even a spike on campus.”

Maryland seniors Kyeisha Laurence and Emily Berry say an in-person event will go a long way toward making up for the disappointment and difficulties they’ve experienced during a challenging year in which all their classes were virtual and the typical joys of college life were hard to find.

“I think there’s a sense of relief that we made it through the year and that, you know, generally students stayed safe and hopefully we’ll get an in-person ceremony to celebrate everyone’s accomplishment,” said Berry, a government and politics major from Annapolis. Berry is a triplet, and her brother and sister will also receive degrees from Maryland on May 21 if all goes as planned. “I certainly will feel a lot of gratitude for getting to where we are today.”

For Laurence, a cellular biology and genetics major and a French minor, the in-person event holds special significance. Laurence is the first in her family to graduate from college, and she’s looking forward to having her mother and aunt in attendance to share the big day.

“To sit socially distanced, but to still have that atmosphere of everyone celebrating this amazing moment, that’s really what I’m looking forward to,” Laurence said. “And, of course, for my family to see me in person.”

For some colleges, commencement will offer a joyous bookend to a school year that got off to a rocky start.

Gettysburg College, a private liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, abruptly sent more than half its 2,200 students home in early September after surges in viral infections hammered its opening. But the college’s operations stabilized, and by spring semester, the campus was open to all students who wanted to return. Now it is planning an in-person commencement in an outdoor stadium, with each graduating senior allowed two guests.

“It was clear just how important it was to our students, our seniors, to come together and to mark the dual accomplishment of the completion of their college career and the navigation of this pandemic,” said Gettysburg President Bob Iuliano. “We will get to the finish line.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of a University of Maryland vice president. It is Brian Ullmann. The article has been corrected.