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The upcoming graduation season poses complex challenges for colleges and universities. Commencement is a milestone that marks life-changing accomplishments for many graduates, their families and their friends. Yet, unfortunately, the United States is at a crossroads at this moment in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Safe and effective vaccines are rolling out quickly (although in an often inequitable fashion), and a major peak in COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths has seen a decline. But in a number of states, that decline has stopped or reversed itself, and variants of concern are now emerging and may be more transmissible and even more harmful than the first “wild type” virus. While cases, hospitalizations and deaths recently plateaued, that plateau was still at a high level and could be the foundation for a near-term COVID-19 resurgence in the United States.

Therefore, what we as Americans do in the coming weeks -- in terms of vaccine uptake, mask use, physical distancing, hand sanitization and air ventilation, as well as the various policies we institute -- will determine our future. Will we have to shut down further, as some countries have had to do, or will we meet President Biden’s goal of commemorating this July Fourth with small group gatherings of our family and friends?

Given the epidemiologically perilous point at which we find ourselves at this moment, college graduation season comes at an especially difficult time. This essay outlines just some of the challenges that higher education institutions will face as they try to balance COVID-related safety with the celebratory spirit of that season.

Key Steps Required

A first step colleges and universities must take in planning for graduation this year is to examine the epidemiological spread of COVID-19 on their campuses, in the surrounding community and in the whole social network of persons who might attend graduation events in person. Relatedly, they must review local and state regulations for gathering sizes and types at this moment. If the review of the relevant spread of COVID-19 on their campus indicates a plateau at a concerning high level or an increase -- and especially if there’s evidence of widespread transmission of variants of concern -- then the safest course of action would be to make graduation online and as memorable as possible.

Slightly less safe but still a prudent course of action would be to plan for an in-person graduation but delay the date until mid- to later summer -- perhaps right before classes resume in the fall. Right now, vaccine uptake is racing the spread of variants in the United States, and it is not clear which will win in the short term of the next few weeks. But it seems clear that, in the longer term, vaccine uptake and nonpharmaceutical interventions will prevail and make campus life much safer once again. In this race, a few weeks matter greatly, and planning for in-person graduations later in the summer could induce considerably more safety.

Of course, as desirable as online or deferred ceremonies are from a public health point of view, some people will object because they understandably wish to mark this great milestone in May in an in-person manner. If an institution decides to hold an in-person graduation, it should take a number of other steps to help reduce (while not eliminating) COVID-related risk. Those would include minimizing the number of faculty and staff members on campus who are managing the event, allowing student participation in small waves, and limiting each graduate’s activity to hearing one’s name read, walking across an outdoor stage and having a memorable but strictly solo photo taken.

Graduate students should do their own doctoral hooding, not their adviser or other institutional official. That and any other in-person activity must also be conducted outside with full mask use, physical distancing and hand sanitization. In addition, all students, staff and faculty members involved in the graduation should be tested in advance -- ideally repeatedly.

Further, everyone present should be fully vaccinated before the ceremony. That means not only receiving all needed vaccine injections but also allowing enough time for immunity to develop afterward. If colleges and universities took all these precautionary steps, they could manage, although clearly not entirely eliminate, COVID-related risk.

But what about guests? Colleges must also deal with the vexing challenge of students’ reasonable desire to bring them to any in-person graduation event. The safest strategy would be to bar guests entirely and make arrangements for them to watch the ceremony via a secured videoconference or recording after the fact. If in-person guests are allowed, minimizing the number is clearly desirable. As more guests are allowed and fewer restrictions are placed on them, the social networks of potential transmission pathways rapidly expand and the COVID-related risk similarly heightens.

Besides limiting the absolute number of guests, colleges should consider only allowing guests from the student’s immediate household or the specified social network that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest can interact postvaccination. Any guests that attend must adhere to all regulations applied to students, faculty and staff regarding testing, vaccination and nonpharmaceutical safety precautions. And at the end of each student’s recognition, they and their guests should be required to exit the area as quickly as feasible so as not to densify the campus.

A Contribution to Safety and Equity

While such precautions may seem burdensome and not in spirit of the celebratory mood of graduation, if not managed properly, graduations could quite easily become superspreader events transmitting SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern. Even if an institution plans an in-person graduation, it should have backup options to hold online or rescheduled ceremonies in case the relevant epidemiology changes quickly and a midcourse correction is needed.

Further, as campuses make their final choices about their graduation format, they should acknowledge not only health equity -- given the terribly disproportionate burden COVID-19 has put upon the health of communities of color -- but also equity in students’ opportunity to engage in meaningful academic milestone ceremonies like graduation. Many students of color and first-generation college students, as well as their families and friends, are undergoing a disproportionately difficult time now due to COVID-19. That raises the question of whether graduation ceremonies should be held a few weeks later when vaccinations will hopefully be more widely and equitably available -- thereby making broader and safer participation in such ceremonies possible.

Ultimately, each college and university will have to make a complex and difficult decision for its graduation celebration. But whether online, delayed or carefully managed in person, being cautious and strategic about event management is another contribution all of us in higher education can make toward creating an environment that is as safe and equitable as possible for everyone.

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