In Person or Virtual? Covid Complicates College Commencements

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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.

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