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OPINION: In-person graduation plan needs swift revisions

USF’s late announcement regarding in-person commencement for spring 2021 graduates laid out health and safety precautions to be followed during the ceremonies that come off as both restrictive and unclear. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/Kenneth C. Zirkel

In an announcement Monday afternoon, USF President Steven Currall said the university will hold in-person commencement ceremonies at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg for the spring 2021 graduating class.

For the first time in over a year, students will finally have the ability to feel a collective sense of accomplishment as they close out an important milestone of their lives. Students will be able to sit in the stadium with their graduating class and celebrate the occasion in person with friends and family.

Though this move is a positive step toward providing a suitable option for the graduating class, USF announced the plans too late and failed to provide clear, crucial information about student expectations and venue accommodations as well. 

Universities based their commencement plans on the Blueprint for Spring Semester 2021 Commencements, released by the Board of Governors (BOG) Feb. 15, exactly one month before USF’s commencement announcement.

Compared to UF and FSU’s announcements released Feb. 19 and Feb. 25, respectively, to hold their graduations in person, USF took way longer than anticipated to make this decision. 

In addition to poor timing, the announcement also felt both restrictive and vague about what health and safety guidelines are to be followed during commencement.

Approximately 7,000 students are expected to obtain their degree from USF this spring, according to university spokesperson Adam Freeman, so it is important to ensure the safety of students and guests attending the ceremonies. But a compromise must be made between following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and keeping graduation traditions in place. 

While UF, FSU and UCF will allow their students to walk across the stage, USF will not. Students’ names won’t even be announced during the ceremony. Both practices are integral parts of a typical graduation and offer a special moment for students to be individually recognized for their accomplishments.

The BOG, however, appears to be fine letting students cross the stage and have their names read aloud during the ceremonies, as the blueprint clearly outlines.

“A drive-through or walk-through ceremony may be an appropriate alternative if there is an available outdoor location, sufficient space and workable logistics,” the blueprint stated.

UF has a graduating class similar in size to USF’s at about 8,000 students walking the stage in May. If UF feels capable enough to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 while also providing a fulfilling graduation experience, USF should as well. 

The USF administration also has not made clear the exact safety and health precautions to be implemented at the ceremonies. 

While “appropriate face coverings” are cited as requirements to attend commencement, the announcement did not specify which face coverings are deemed appropriate. 

Without further clarification of what coverings are permitted for use, such as N95 masks and commonly used medical masks, students and guests with inappropriate face coverings could be turned away the day of graduation.

Additionally, there is no mention of specific community plans to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 outside Tropicana Field.

UF recently announced its collaboration with the City of Gainesville, the Greater Gainesville Chamber of Commerce and the Alachua County Hospitality Council in order to work with hotels, restaurants and establishments surrounding its graduation ceremony site, according to UF News. 

As of March 15, USF has not announced similar steps to ensure the safety of St. Petersburg citizens at surrounding restaurants and outlets.

While COVID-19 health and safety measures should continue to be the top priority for USF administration, that doesn’t mean the ceremony should be cut down to a few speeches and people sitting 6 feet apart in a big arena.

Rather than making a decision that requires the least amount of effort, USF should push to carefully ensure the event is planned following CDC guidelines while balancing what students deserve to have in their in-person graduation ceremonies.

USF needs to release a detailed plan for the ceremonies and better outline health and safety precautions it is taking while not prohibiting the most essential parts of graduation. Graduating students who have survived both college and a global pandemic have more than earned the right to walk across the stage and have their accomplishments recognized in May.