By Sarah Elson
Capital News Service
College graduations will still look different due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but more Virginia universities are returning to in-person ceremonies.
Graduations will be held online, in person or a hybrid format. Gov. Ralph Northam announced last month preliminary guidance for graduation events, which continues to be updated.
“The acceleration of the vaccine program and the decrease in new COVID-19 cases make it safer to ease restrictions on activities like in-person graduations,” Northam stated in March.
Graduation events for K-12 schools and colleges will operate under two sets of guidelines, depending on the date. Graduation events held outdoors before May 15 will be capped at 5,000 people or 30% of the venue capacity, whichever is less. Graduation events held indoors may have up to 500 people, or 30% of the venue capacity, whichever is less.
More people can attend graduations held on or after May 15. The governor’s orders allow an increase to 50% of venue capacity or 5,000 people at outdoor graduations. Indoor events cannot exceed either 50% venue capacity or 1,000 persons.
Attendees must wear masks and follow other guidelines and safety protocols to ensure social distancing.
Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond will hold a university-wide commencement ceremony online on May 15, according to a statement the university released last month. Individual departments can decide whether to hold in-person graduation.
VCU College of Humanities and Sciences will hold three in-person graduation ceremonies outdoors on May 15. The ceremonies will be held rain or shine on an outdoor field used for sports. Guests are not allowed to attend, but the ceremonies will be livestreamed.
Britney Simmons, a senior VCU mass communications major graduating in May, has concerns about attending an in-person event.
“I’d prefer that graduation is online,” Simmons stated in a text message. “I’m still uncomfortable with large gatherings and wouldn’t feel comfortable with me or any of my family attending and putting their health at risk.”
Federal health agencies called for a pause of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine this month due to reports of blood clots in some individuals who received it. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration panel late last week recommended restarting the J&J vaccinations, with an added warning about the risk of rare blood clots.
“The university really put its hope in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and that lots of students would be vaccinated by commencement,” said Tim Bajkiewicz, an associate professor of broadcast journalism at VCU and communications director for the VCU chapter of American Association of University Professors. “Because of the pause that the CDC put on that vaccine, it really kind of blew a huge hole in those plans.”
Students and faculty originally scheduled to receive the one-dose J&J shot had to temporarily shift to a new timetable with the incremental, two-dose shots that could make it harder for everyone to receive a vaccine by graduation.
VCU spokesman Michael Porter did not respond to multiple requests for comment about any possible problems the university might encounter from that pause of the J&J vaccine.
“The ceremonies are already super stripped down,” Bajkiewicz said. “But still over this whole thing is a pronounced risk of getting COVID-19.”
Virginia Tech in Blacksburg will have 16 in-person commencement ceremonies by college from May 10 to May 16 at Lane Stadium, the university’s football stadium. Graduating students are required to register and students are allowed to invite up to four guests.
Virginia Tech will also hold a virtual commencement ceremony on May 14.
Sarah Hajzus, a senior industrial and systems engineering major at Virginia Tech, said she would prefer to have graduation in person.
“Small, in-person [graduation], if we were to do it by major I feel like that would be ideal,” Hajzus said.
The University of Virginia in Charlottesville will hold its commencement outdoors on May 21 to May 23 for the class of 2021. Students will walk the lawn and process to Scott Stadium, where each student can have two guests. The class of 2020 will also get a chance to walk and attend a special ceremony, according to U.Va. President Jim Ryan.
Other Virginia universities will hold spring graduation completely online. George Mason University released a statement that its spring commencement will be held virtually. The ceremony is set for Friday, May 14 at 2 p.m.
VCU students and employees are not required, but encouraged, to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Over 43% of the state’s population had received at least one-dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Monday, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
“It is really sad that I won’t be able to have an in-person graduation since I looked forward to having one all four years, but I think everyone’s health is more important than a graduation ceremony,” Simmons stated.
(Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.)