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A pre-pandemic graduation ceremony at Virginia Tech.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

More than a year after colleges and universities first went online due to the pandemic, many are now lifting safety restrictions and planning for in-person events. Health officials at those institutions say circumstances have changed.

The University of Arizona, for instance, is planning to soon allow 100 people in every in-person class, up from the previous cap of 50.

Richard Carmona, leader of the university’s re-entry task force and former surgeon general of the United States, said the public health team is closely monitoring student data and decided conditions were safe enough to move to this phase of restrictions. Classrooms will still require masking and six feet of social distancing, and students can continue to take their large lecture classes online if they prefer.

“Moving from 50 to 100 was based on the best science available,” Carmona said. “We’ll continue to monitor. If there’s another bump -- in other words, that we see more transmissibility and we cannot sustain the healthy environment -- then we’ll go back to phase 2 or phase 1 or even shut down altogether.”

Stanford University is also planning to give students more face-to-face time. After only allowing students with special circumstances to be on campus for the past few terms, last month the administration reversed course, inviting juniors and seniors for the spring quarter, which starts today.

“We believe our campus is prepared to respond effectively to positive cases that occur,” the university said in an announcement. “Modeling of infections and hospitalizations by experts in our Stanford School of Medicine suggests that the trajectory of COVID-19 this spring is likely to be manageable.”

Stanford is still planning to hold its graduation virtually, but many other institutions are now planning in-person ceremonies.

University of South Florida, for example, is planning to host some of its 7,000 graduates and their guests at Tropicana Field, an indoor stadium.

University officials said they only expect about 35 to 40 percent of students to actually attend. Each student will be allowed two guests. Masks will be required and the stadium will allow groups to spread out, unlike the ceremony’s typical on-campus venue. A streaming of the ceremony will be available online, and although students will have their names read, they will stand by their seat rather than walking across a stage.

“Over 2020 we heard increased calls from students to move back into an in-person ceremony,” said Travis Miller, associate director of commencement. “We knew the demand and the want was there from students. So we started looking at all the possible venues and how could we hold the ceremony in as safe a way as possible and still maintain some of the traditions of commencement.”

Donna Petersen, dean of the university’s College of Public Health and chair of the COVID-19 task force, said her team was involved in establishing safety measures for the event.

“We’ve done everything we can consistent with what people should have seen in the larger community over these months as we’ve been slowly reopening,” she said. “We’re confident that this can be a safe event.”

Not everyone is thinking quite so big. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University is planning for multiple smaller ceremonies to celebrate graduates, although degrees will be conferred in a virtual event. Virginia Tech hasn't made any firm plans yet on how many ceremonies there will be or how graduates will be split up.

Mark Owczarski, associate vice president for university relations, said that changing circumstances and the loosening of restrictions from Virginia’s governor both played a role in the decision.

“Commencement was considered until 30 days ago as a social gathering, so we were limited by the state to a gathering of no more than 25 people,” he said. “Recently the governor has changed his mandates such that commencement ceremonies are under different guidelines and protocols.” Now Governor Northam’s preliminary plans allow for commencements of up to 5,000 people outdoors and 500 people indoors, up to 30 percent of venue capacity.

In survey results, two things appeared most important to students, Owczarski said: having the ceremony in Lane Stadium and being able to walk across the stage when their name is called.

Planning a ceremony that does those things and is also in line with state restrictions is something of a math and logic puzzle. For example, Owczarski said, the university isn’t permitted to serve food or drink, but hosting people in the heat without water could be dangerous.

Officials at several institutions said most students are clamoring for an in-person graduation. Giving them something -- even if it’s not quite what they were expecting when they matriculated -- is a way to honor graduates after a very difficult year.

“Commencement is arguably the most joyous, joyful occasion on a college campus every year,” Owczarski said.

Some institutions are looking to accommodate students who want a graduation experience but might not feel comfortable attending an in-person gathering. Officials at Widener University created focus groups and surveyed their graduating students to see what sort of ceremony they would prefer. Seventy percent of seniors who responded said they wanted a traditional in-person commencement, so the university is planning to offer about 10 to 12 mini commencements under a large outdoor tent. Each will hold about 100 students, with each graduate allowed to bring two guests. The speaking program will be short, but students will be able to process across the stage.

However, about 25 percent of students said they weren’t comfortable with something like that, said Katie Herschede, vice president for strategic initiatives at Widener. So the university will also be holding one or two days of drive-through ceremonies, where students can bring two vehicles full of as many guests as they want. Graduates will get out of their vehicle to walk across the stage.

“We encourage them to be creative. We know we have a few students who are going to ride in open-air trolleys,” Herschede said. “The great thing about these options is students have agency, students have options. Students get to make a decision in a year then they have really not been able to make a lot of decisions and not have a lot of control.”

Of course, these types of ceremonies may not be right for every college. Berkshire Community College in Massachusetts will be sticking to the virtual graduation this year, but it is planning to invite students to an in-person gathering down the line. The usual venue has declined to hold graduation ceremonies.

“Across the nation students want an in-person ceremony if they’re able to, and we want an in-person ceremony, if the world would allow us to. It's just unfortunately been that that’s not the case,” said Celia Norcross, dean of students at BCC. “We want to make sure that the event that we have highlights their success and doesn’t have a trail behind it with something that wasn’t intended.”

Last year’s virtual ceremony allowed graduates and family members who may not have been able to be there in person the opportunity to attend the event, Norcross said. The college is also considering a drive-through component of the graduation. The college is hoping to use the same budget it typically has for graduation to try to make the event special for students, sending personalized boxes, covering the cost of caps and diploma covers, and encouraging students to dress up even at home.

“I’m amazed with how wonderful our community is with understanding and looking past themselves to the greater good,” Norcross said. “Everyone understands what’s going on in the world.”

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