Reinventing Fall Weekends for Parents and Alumni

To guard against COVID-19, many campuses are creating virtual, hybrid or outdoor programs for visiting families and alumni.

October 1, 2021
 
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The University of Vermont is testing out a monthlong family “weekend.”

Many colleges typically hold parents’ weekends in the fall, when families descend in droves to get a sense of their students’ life on campus. Scheduled activities run from tailgate parties and ice cream socials to lectures and concerts. Sometimes parents attend classes, meet with professors or deans, or get off campus to explore local dining and shopping.

This year, of course, is different. Some institutions have canceled their family weekends altogether; others are implementing virtual or hybrid programming for eager families. Institutions offering in-person events vary greatly in the COVID-19 precautions they are taking, from none to holding events only outside to requiring that visitors show proof of vaccination.

The University of Vermont is one campus testing a new approach to its fall family event. Instead of dedicating a specific weekend for visiting families, the university is inviting them to come to campus anytime during the month of October. An assortment of activities -- some in person, some remote -- will be offered throughout the month.

The change was prompted in part to give students and their families more flexibility, said Erica Caloiero, interim vice provost for student affairs.

“We were inspired to evolve our family visit so that more families can come to campus and connect with us, and with their students,” she said. “By moving from a weekend to a season, families have more flexibility, can plan around events that interest them and potentially avoid dates when their students may be busy.”

It also increases the likelihood that families can get the reservations they want at local hotels and restaurants, she said, which may be especially tight this year because sophomores’ families didn’t have the opportunity to visit last year.

“Families spent a lot of time together over the last 18 months and will be looking for a chance to reconnect with their students,” Caloiero said.

Campus events on the schedule include open houses at different schools, a breakfast for BIPOC students and families, and an apple pie meet-and-greet. Families can also choose their own adventure off campus: hiking, going to museums or eating at local restaurants in Burlington. In addition, various panels will be conducted virtually all month, including one featuring alums discussing their career paths.

UVM’s COVID-19 policy mandates that all people wear masks while inside campus buildings and university vehicles, whether they are vaccinated or not. While the student population is virtually 100 percent vaccinated, visitors are not required but are “strongly” encouraged to do the same, according to the university’s website.

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Pomona College in California is hosting an in-person family weekend with only outdoor events, with the exception of programs held in limited capacity at the Benton Museum of Art. Rain or shine, all programs will continue as scheduled, the university said online. Programming includes an outdoor movie night, men’s soccer and women’s volleyball games, and taco night.

The college is requiring all family members attending family weekend to submit proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours of arriving. And family members won’t have access to campus buildings, including residence halls, which are limited only to students, staff and faculty.

Emory University in Atlanta is also conducting an in-person family weekend, with a tailgate hosted by Emory Athletics, a women’s soccer game and 5-K fun run. The university requires vaccinations against COVID-19 for all students, faculty and staff and has a mask requirement for everyone -- including visitors -- in indoor common spaces on campus, regardless of their vaccination status.

At Carleton College’s family weekend, visitors can participate mostly in person, with some hybrid options. Families will be able to take a tour of the Minnesota campus, or attend a bonfire, a trivia night or the inauguration of Alison R. Byerly as Carleton’s 12th president. The virtual programming includes a livestreamed convocation featuring Tiya Miles, author of prizewinning works of African American and Native American history, and a livestreamed women’s volleyball game.

Becky Zrimsek, assistant vice president of external relations, said Carleton decided to keep successful virtual program elements this year for students with family far away or who couldn’t afford to visit.

“Last year, of course, we had to cancel all in-person programming, and in the process tried a number of new virtual programs,” Zrimsek said. “These engaged many parents who had not been able to visit campus for family weekend in prior years, whether due to distance, expense, or time.”

Visitors who plan to eat in Carleton’s dining halls or attend any family weekend events held indoors must be fully vaccinated or have received a negative COVID-19 test no more than 72 hours before their visit. Masks are also required for all indoor events.

American University in Washington, D.C., is also hosting a hybrid family weekend. Families will be able to visit in person from Oct. 1 to 3, but virtual programming began Sept. 29 and will last until Oct. 6. Visitors can virtually attend an art exhibition, take a guided online arboretum tour and attend a panel discussion about the Emmy-nominated documentary With Drawn Arms with filmmaker and AU graduate Afshin Shahidi. The university requires vaccinations against COVID-19 for all students, faculty and staff and has an indoor mask mandate for all visitors.

Some colleges are still opting for strictly virtual programming. St. John’s College campuses in Maryland and New Mexico will host their family weekend entirely on Zoom with different panels. Additionally there will be a virtual dinner event where families can download a list of the college’s favorite recipes, cook at home and learn about wine from alumni who have gone on to become winemakers. Attendees will also be able to choose music or a movie selected or created by an alum.

Kelly Brown, vice president of advancement at St. John’s, said the decision to go all virtual "made sense" to keep students and their relatives safe, while providing flexibility to families. And in the future, she said, the college will provide both a virtual and in-person family weekend.

"Last year, we learned that many of our families had neither the time nor the funds to travel to campus, but that they loved learning about their student’s experience," said Brown. "With a virtual weekend, busy parents can be at work in the morning, on the soccer field with their younger children in the afternoon and with us in the evening, learning about the college at their own pace and at a time that suits them."

Tufts University in Massachusetts is also opting for remote, with a virtual program for parents and families. Attendees will be able to hear from President Anthony Monaco, Provost Nadine Aubry, school deans, faculty members, students and more. During Yale University’s family weekend, families can livestream talks each day, including a keynote speech on teaching and education by dean of Yale College Marvin Chun.

At Rollins College In Florida, families are welcome to visit, but the family weekend is going virtual due to indoor group size limits, the college states online. Programming for Rollins includes a virtual meet-and-greet with students in Greek life, a virtual prayer session with the Muslim Student Union, and an online trivia night. Other virtual-only family weekends will happen at Sarah Lawrence College and the Pratt Institute in New York.

Alumni: Stay Home

Other fall traditions -- including homecoming -- are being canceled because of COVID concerns, denying students and alumni an opportunity to come together. Georgetown University announced in early September it was canceling homecoming because of new COVID-19 event guidance from Ranit Mishori, the university’s vice president and chief public health officer. The guidelines recommended holding events outdoors rather than indoors, limiting event size, using livestreams and Zoom conferencing, and opening events only to Georgetown community members.

"Please know we remain committed to engaging and celebrating our students and alumni," the university said online. "To that end, throughout this year we will highlight other opportunities for our students to learn about and celebrate our many, storied Hoya traditions, while providing alumni various opportunities to celebrate with one another in our alumni communities across the globe."

The university said that the next homecoming will take place from Oct. 7 to 9 of next year. Other institutions that have canceled their homecoming events due to COVID-19 concerns include two HBCUs, Morehouse and Spelman Colleges in Atlanta, where the reunion is usually referred to as "SpelHouse Homecoming" since the two colleges celebrate together. Typically, thousands of Morehouse and Spelman graduates return to the campuses for the weekend, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.

Spelman College canceled in-person alumnae events for its homecoming and is instead hosting a virtual event under the theme "Stronger Together: A Forever Sisterhood," Spelman president Mary Schmidt Campbell said in an email to students.

In a message to students, Morehouse president David A. Thomas said the college would replace the traditional homecoming with a student-only fall festival. Morehouse’s homecoming football game with Fort Valley State University will go on, but only a limited number of tickets will be available to the public in order to maintain social distancing at B. T. Harvey Stadium.

"Unfortunately, this week, Georgia broke a record for COVID-19 hospitalizations," Thomas said in his letter. "The state has the sixth-highest per capita infection rate in the nation and an unprecedented number of young people have become ill with the virus. Given the circumstances, a massive in-person gathering on our campus presents a public health risk to our students which is impossible to ignore. Keeping our students safe is our top priority."

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