Editorial: A hybrid commencement ceremony is unwise despite the possibility of increased vaccine distribution
In response to the announcement that campus operations will ostensibly return to normal for the Fall 2021 semester, a petition has been circulated requesting that Commencement include in-person elements. The petition, which as of press time was signed by over 400 people including students, alumni and other community members, outlines two ideas for safe, in-person graduation ceremonies to be attended by current seniors only (no friends or family). This board understands and acknowledges that Commencement is an important part of many students’ college experiences and that it holds cultural and emotional significance. However, the board is of the opinion that holding an in-person graduation ceremony of any kind would be unwise.
For both options, the ceremony (or ceremonies) would be hybrid style, with the students in-person and guests and off-campus students watching a live stream of the event. Assuming that everyone actually abides by the rules, the best case scenario would still be a Zoom graduation for the majority of attendees. This is to say that no matter what the University decides to do for graduation, there would be a cohort — students, faculty, trustees, families or a combination — that will be dissatisfied with the outcome. As with so many pandemic-related adaptations, there is simply no way to please everyone. Having an online-only graduation is the safest, most accessible and most convenient option.
The petition also predicts that most seniors and faculty will likely be vaccinated by the date of graduation. However, according to the Massachusetts government website, “If your group is not specifically listed in either Phase 1 or Phase 2, you will be eligible to receive the vaccine in Phase 3, which will launch April 19, 2021.” Considering the fact that many of the vaccines require two doses, this board believes it is unlikely that Massachusetts will be able to get through enough of Phase 3 in time for graduation.
The board would like to remind readers that data on whether the vaccines prevent individuals from contracting and spreading COVID-19 to others is still being collected and analyzed. Also, a March 19 email from COVID-19 Program Director Morgen Bergman indicates that a green passport is not sufficient proof that an individual has recently been tested, as the University has received multiple reports of students fraudulently submitting samples for their friends. Additionally, since a person’s passport can be green simply because they have turned in a COVID-19 test, a green passport does not necessarily mean a person has recently tested negatively.
The petition’s Option 1 involves multiple small outdoor ceremonies over the course of a week. In addition to the inherent risk brought on by gathering — yes, even outdoors — facilities staff would be subjected to even more labor and responsibility, incurring health risks as well. Option 2 is safer, involving grab-and-go diplomas and cap and gown pickup by appointment. This is certainly a better option, but it is still not without the risk of exposure and requires additional effort on the part of the facilities staff. This board would like to stress its view that both these options are quite reasonable and were put forward in good faith; they simply seem like an unnecessary risk.
The petition mentions the fact that the University plans to “operate fully in-person three months after the 2021 Commencement Ceremony” as a reason to re-evaluate the plan for Spring 2021 graduation. The University’s confidence that it can open up in the fall should have no bearing on this semester. There is a huge difference between what can be accomplished in two months (from now until graduation) and what can be accomplished in five or six months when the fall semester begins. This board assumes (hopefully not too naively) that the University would have planned for an in-person commencement ceremony for May of 2021 if the administration believed we could do so safely.
As a final note, the board would like to emphasize that a Zoom graduation does not diminish the accomplishments of the graduating class. The Class of 2021 will have endured over a year of a global pandemic and still manage to come out of it with a university degree! This board encourages seniors to celebrate and be proud of themselves from the safety of their own homes.