In the early weeks of March 2020, colleges and universities across the United States urged students to move out of campus accommodations and return home in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness associated with the new coronavirus.
As students practice social distancing at home, many schools have doubled down on their concerns about the virus. After initially planning to reconvene on-campus classes later in the spring, schools have extended remote instruction through the end of the spring term.
As of Monday, March 30, data from the School of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University indicate that the number of U.S. COVID-19 cases has surpassed 140,000 across all 50 states and Washington DC and resulted in 2,571 deaths.
Despite the coronavirus' already dire impact in the US, President Trump said repeatedly last week that he hoped to relax coronavirus guidelines by Easter in the hopes of restarting the economy. But public health experts—including the president's own advisers—warned that trying to return to normal life too quickly risked allowing the virus to escalate even further, increasing the likelihood of more infections and raising the number of deaths.
On Sunday, Trump retreated from his initial plans, announcing instead that all Americans must continue to avoid nonessential travel, going to work, eating at bars and restaurants, or gathering in groups of more than ten until at least the end of April. It is not inconceivable that restrictions will stay in place into June.
Meanwhile, the toll of the coronavirus pandemic is unfolding inside homes throughout the country. For hundreds of thousands of college students, this means learning to deal with a new normal of social distancing and remote learning, as well as the stress of an uncertain future.
College seniors, in particular, are now grappling with the precariousness of their graduation ceremonies. While some schools say it's too soon to tell where things will stand in two months, many others have taken action in anticipation that the coronavirus pandemic will stretch into spring.
On March 13, the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor became the first major university in the Great Lake state to cancel its May 2 graduation ceremony, where former Vice President Al Gore was scheduled to speak. In a message to the U-M Community, President Mark Schlissel acknowledged that the news would be very disappointing to many, adding that school officials were "looking at ways to celebrate 2020 graduates in the future."
On the same day, the University of California - Irvine announced similar plans and became the first of the nine colleges within the UC System to scrap commencement. The cancellation also marks the first time in the university's 55-year history that the traditional ceremony for its graduating class will not carry out as planned.
Other institutions that have canceled their graduation ceremonies as the coronavirus spreads include Brigham Young University - Provo, Vassar College, Yale University, University of Oregon, Carnegie Mellon University, and Savannah College of Art and Design.
Canceling graduation is rare but not unprecedented in the US. Ceremonies across the country were scrapped in 1970 after occupations, sit-ins, and stand-offs with the authorities about the Vietnam War caused many universities to clear their campuses. Some invited students back decades later to be honored.
Earlier this month—shortly before President Trump advised against gatherings of more than ten people—Wentworth Institute of Technology announced that it would be postponing its April graduation.
New York University also postponed commencement at Yankee Stadium as well as all individual school graduation ceremonies in New York. In a message to graduating students, University President Andrew D. Hamilton stressed that once the pandemic subsides, the school will "find a way to hold an in-person graduation exercise and properly recognize the Class of 2020 with all the pomp and circumstance you deserve and that NYU knows how to muster."
Officials at Boston University still hope to host its traditional ceremony, announcing last week that it will postpone its 147th commencement and all related events from May 15 to 17, 2020 to late August or early fall. Walter V. Wendler, President of West Texas A & M University, told students that all commencement events are postponed until he believes it "to be safe and in the interests of the health, safety, and welfare of our students, faculty, staff, and the general public."
Bowdoin College also made public that its commencement ceremonies will not take place as originally scheduled in late May, but that the school "will find a way to celebrate all that the class of 2020 has accomplished when this crisis has passed."
At Grinnell College in Iowa, Dean Anne Harris told students that there will be no "traditional" graduation ceremony. Instead, the school "will begin looking at alternative ways that we might honor graduating seniors." Current options include an online ceremony and holding a joint commencement next year for the class of 2020 and 2021.
As it turns out, online commencement ceremonies are the preferred course of action for many schools. In a letter to the class of 2020, University of Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins announced that the school's May 17 commencement ceremony will be held online rather than in Notre Dame Stadium.
Harvard University also plans to hold its commencement ceremony online. In a letter to the campus community, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow wrote that while "no virtual gathering can possibly match the splendor of our usual festivities," the university will "come together online to award degrees so that everyone will graduate as expected." He added that each school at Harvard will also host its own discrete online event and afterward deliver diplomas through the mail.
Babson College also postponed its May graduation ceremony, asking its 2020 graduates to practice "innovative and safe ways to recognize their accomplishments, both virtually and when it is safe to gather together."
The University of Pennsylvania is taking a similar approach with an online ceremony slated for mid-May. In-person commencement ceremonies on Penn's campus will be planned for a time when it is safe and feasible to do so.
Earlier this month, Wellesley College students held their own "unofficial senior ceremony" near Boston. Some referred to it as 'fake graduation' or 'fauxmencement.' The college did not sponsor the events. Instead, students called their own names and were awarded flowers in place of diplomas.
Similar celebrations were organized at the University of Chicago, where the university's ultimate frisbee team handed out frisbees instead of diplomas. Students at the Franklin W Olin College of Engineering held a ceremony complete with garbage bags gowns, paper caps, and tassels made of yarn.
"It was yesterday morning in the dining hall at about 9 or 10 am when a set of students and staff came and said 'Hey, we have this idea. We can do a fake commencement!" Mark Somerville, Olin's Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Research, said at the ceremony. "Which seemed like a pretty awesome idea in a challenging time."
In about 24 hours, people from all over the school came together to make it happen, according to Somerville: Facilities workers, dining services employees, the orchestra, staff and of course, the students.
"This is amazing that this is happening right now," Somerville said. "It is a testament to what Olin is as a community and it kind of makes me want to cry but I'm gonna not do that quite yet."
Questions or feedback? Email email@example.com