RICHMOND, Va. -- With spring graduation approaching, some parents with children at various Virginia schools want the state to allow some form of in-person, outdoor graduation ceremonies.
Since last year, most colleges, universities, and high schools have opted to host virtual or drive-thru ceremonies to curb the spread of COVID-19.
In late February, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and state health officials announced outdoor sports and recreation venues could begin hosting up to 1,000 people while simultaneously ensuring mitigation protocols.
However, several Virginia colleges and universities reported commencement ceremonies do not qualify under those guidelines.
With vaccinations increasing and virus mitigation protocols clearer this spring than last, some parent groups are urging state officials to include graduation events in that category as well.
“This particular group of seniors, they’ve had nothing,” Lynn Stephens, who helped organize one of the online petitions, said. “I mean this is something they’re never going to get back. This is their one shot.”
Nicole Kreamer, whose daughter is a senior at Virginia Tech, separately started her own online campaign that has garnered support from nearly 1,900 people.
Both groups said they have never met outside of an email but are now helping coordinate the effort.
“No one is asking, just throw safety to the wind. We’re saying we want to do this; we want to do this safely; we understand maybe not as traditional as in the past. You can’t pack Lane Stadium with 50,000 people,” Kreamer said, noting that many universities previously held smaller, department-specific graduation events. “In my mind, they have plenty of experience doing smaller groups. You would just have a bigger venue to do it out of.”
After a review of the publicly published commencement plans for several of Virginia’s biggest colleges and universities, it is clear most schools are still reviewing and planning out their options.
For instance, George Mason University has already announced their ceremonies will be virtual.
Other schools, like the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, James Madison, and the University of Richmond, have said they are exploring a combination of hybrid options to possibly include virtual ceremonies and smaller, in-person events. UVA said no matter what, they will not be able to accommodate guests this spring.
“Because statewide restrictions of in-person gatherings remain in effect, Virginia Tech’s spring University Commencement will be held online on May 14. However, the university is planning for some in-person moments as restrictions on gatherings could potentially loosen by May,” Virginia Tech officials wrote on their commencement page.
Still, most schools that have publicly announced plans said they are reviewing guidance from the state and will finalize details in the coming weeks.
For example, an update from VCU this weekend read:
“At this time VCU is exploring all the safest possible options. We will provide additional updates to you and your families later this month, as we consult the guidance from VCU’s Public Health Response Team, the Governor of Virginia, and the Virginia Department of Health.”
Kreamer said most of the parents she has spoken with believed working with school officials in modifying ceremonies would be doable despite the short time frame.
“Just been doing what I can to get the word out, and overwhelmingly, we’ve received a lot of support. So, I don’t think this would be an unpopular decision,” Kreamer said.
“I’ll be the mom that if it’s not my son’s time to graduate, I’ll stand out with a thermometer, checking people’s temperature,” Stephens said.
In a final year for students that has been anything but normal, Stephens said their goal was to provide students with a memorable moment that highlighted the resilience it took to achieve this academic milestone during a global pandemic.
“That’s what we’ve all been looking forward to and recognizing that important milestone and to allow them that important moment in their life that they’ve worked so hard for,” she said with tears in her eyes. “Obviously, here me crying, it’s that emotional piece because we love our kids, and we know how hard they work, and they deserve it.”
When asked about the chance for in-person graduations this spring, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Health provided the following statement:
"Governor Northam is actively working to ensure schools can safely and responsibly hold graduation ceremonies, the culmination of the academic experience, pending a continued improvement in public health metrics."