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University reconsiders all-virtual commencement in light of new state guidelines

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Stanford is re-evaluating the extent to which it can hold in-person graduation events for the class of 2021 in June following the release of new guidelines for commencement ceremonies.

The California Department of Public Health’s (CDPH) guidelines, released on March 16, state that commencement ceremonies may be held outdoors in accordance with the state’s guidelines on “outdoor live events with assigned seats and controlled mixing.” As of Friday, Santa Clara County is in the orange tier, which allows for outdoor events at 33% capacity and in-state attendees. The Stanford Stadium, where Commencement is typically held, has a 50,424-person capacity.

“We are reviewing the new public health guidance and looking at what in-person events we may be able to do for commencement,” wrote University spokesperson E.J. Miranda. “We will continue to work with student leadership on planning and update the community as we move forward.”

David Pantera ’21, a senior class president and member of the Commencement Committee, said that the committee met on March 25 to discuss potentially adjusting the event in light of the recent change. 

The committee began work on planning the 2021 commencement last summer and developed three models for the ceremony: completely virtual, hybrid and fully in-person. President Marc Tessier-Lavigne initially announced that commencement would be fully virtual in February, but administrators are now considering other options due to the loosened restrictions. 

“We’re still talking through what that will actually look like for commencement, now that we can do more in-person stuff that we had envisioned,” Pantera said. “Restrictions on commencements were looser than [administrators] had expected and that’s why we’re really excited about having opportunities to have more special events,” he added. 

Whether or not commencement will have an in-person component, Pantera said the senior class presidents will be holding socially-distanced in-person events on campus. He said that commencement is considered in a separate “bucket” from the traditional senior events, such as the Wacky Walk, Senior Dinner on the Quad and the class time capsule.

Epidemiologists interviewed by The Daily generally agreed that in-person commencement ceremonies were feasible but had concerns surrounding ceremony guidelines, vaccination and infection rates among students. 

“We’re getting very close to that stage where commencement ceremonies could safely happen in person, but the problem is the practicality of how to do it,” said medicine professor Dean Winslow.

Epidemiology and public health department chair Melissa Bondy was more unsure. “I don’t think it’s a decision to make today that we should have the commencement,” Bondy said, citing the increase in COVID infection rates because of a new U.K. variant. 

Others emphasized the need for testing and vaccination. “Commencement ceremonies could potentially work,” said University of California, San Francisco epidemiology professor George Rutherford ’75 M.A. ’75. “But you would also have to be able to control access and make sure people are uninfected, either by virtue of having been vaccinated or by virtue of having been screened recently.” 

Including all students and families in a commencement ceremony while complying with public health guidelines remains difficult or impossible. The state’s guidelines only permit in-state visitors to attend outdoor events, and many seniors elected not to live on campus spring quarter. 

The senior class is divided, said Pantera, who, along with the other senior class presidents, surveyed the class of 2021 on their preferences for commencement. “Those who are on campus in the spring made it clear that they want something special on campus, they want some sort of graduation experience.” In addition, “Those who are off campus were just as clear that they did not want to feel forgotten.” 

Finding a way to incorporate graduates’ families and seniors living off-campus is a priority for the Commencement Committee, according to Pantera. To balance the desires of those both on and off campus, there will be a virtual component for every in-person event. 

Some California schools are planning optional in-person commencement ceremonies with virtual components. University of California, Berkeley is holding an in-person, student-only procession from May 16 to 20 and a virtual commencement ceremony on May 15. Santa Clara University, in the same county as Stanford, is holding three optional student-only, in-person ceremonies on June 11, and a virtual commencement the following day. 

Pantera said the Commencement Committee does not have a new timeline yet for Stanford’s updated plans. 

The senior class presidents have “always been pushing for as quick a timeline as possible,” he said. “We’re still just talking through how our contingency plans can be edited based on these new restrictions.”

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Julia Ingram ’21 was The Daily's Volume 256 editor-in-chief. She is a New York City native majoring in English literature and working toward a career in news reporting. Contact her at jingram ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.
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Victoria Hsieh '24 is a Staff Writer for The Daily looking to major in Economics and Biology. She is a Seattle native and enjoys hiking in her free time. Contact The Daily’s News section at news ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.