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Pomp and pandemic

Safety restrictions have loosened, but graduation isn’t quite back to normal


One of the University of Pittsburg’s graduation ceremonies last week Associated Press/Photo by Gene J. Puskar (file)

Pomp and pandemic

In late May, Lizzie Lycett plans to climb into a car with her parents, grandfather, and fiancé and drive through the southern California campus of Palomar College. She’s not a high school student on a campus visit—she just finished an associate’s degree she’s been pursuing from the school since 2013, slowed by learning disabilities and the need to work. COVID-19 safety restrictions have moved her graduation ceremony to a drive-thru procession and limited her guest list to whoever fits in one car.

Last year, colleges spliced together videos of speakers and students’ graduation photos into all-virtual events to avoid the risk of COVID-19 spread. This year, many are retaining virtual elements while finding ways to bring students to campus for graduation, giving 2020 and 2021 graduates a chance to celebrate at socially distant ceremonies.

In addition to the typical logistical headaches of graduation such as planning parking and checking name pronunciation, school administrators face shifting safety regulations. Graduation announcements on many school websites included disclaimers that rising case counts could scuttle plans. In Maine, health officials urged outdoor graduations and said with sufficient distance attendees could skip wearing masks. Tim Bajkiewicz, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the pause on Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine administration disrupted the school’s hope of getting most students vaccinated before graduation.

To some students, the uncertain plans feel slapped together: Lycett said she’d received a few emails about the graduation schedule and buying regalia but still didn’t know the driving route for her procession.

For commencement, most schools are moving outside or sticking to video. In Texas, Baylor University held its first outdoor commencement since 1955 at its stadium in early May. There are exceptions depending on local health rules: In Iowa, Dordt University graduates sat in an auditorium, masked and shoulder to shoulder. Many speakers will tune in virtually. Football player Tim Tebow recorded a commencement address for Liberty University on campus in advance. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, will give virtual speeches at the in-person commencements of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Emory University. To meet crowd size limits and leave enough room for social distancing, most schools implemented restrictions on guests.

Even with pared down or virtual ceremonies, schools looked for ways to make graduation fun. Azusa Pacific University in California livestreamed commencement but offered a drive-thru photo opportunity for graduates residing in California. Cars cycled through a campus parking lot, and graduates and their families hopped out at photo stops to take off their masks and pose with red and silver balloons.

Lycett is disappointed that she won’t get a traditional graduation. Like many others, she’s found her own ways to mark the occasion, buying a white dress for graduation photos and having her cap beaded along with the bald eagle feather she received as a Native American. She plans to attend the University of California at San Marcos for a degree in sociology, so in a few years she may have another chance to walk across a graduation stage. For now, she’s proud of conquering the challenge of online classes. “It’s been quite a semester, probably my hardest semester,” Lycett said. “But I’m finally getting there.”

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