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Tech changes Spring commencement day due to COVID-19

Tech’s  Spring 2021 graduates received an email on Friday, February 12, informing them that the Spring 2021 commencement ceremonies had been changed. 

“Planning is underway for the Spring 2021 commencement ceremonies. We are excited to announce the change to two outdoor ceremonies in Tucker Stadium. Please note the date is now Friday, May 7. Ceremony times will be at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.,” according to the email from Mary McCaskey, Director of Financial Aid & Veteran Affairs. 

The original date was set for Saturday, May 8, 2021 with three different ceremonies that would take place in the Hooper Eblen Center.  

Students were invited to click on a link for further information where COVID-19 was given as the cause of the change.

“Outdoor ceremonies help us meet several important expectations from graduates. Our May ceremonies must still follow COVID-19 safety protocol. Our number of spring graduates is so large, we would have to limit the number of guests if we stayed indoors,” according to the Tech website.  

“We would also have to hold ceremonies over a two-day period because of the capacity in Hooper Eblen Center under COVID-19 protocol (floor capacity is fewer than 250 with social distancing),” Karen Lykins, Chief Communication Officer, said.  “Moving to an outdoor ceremony at Tucker Stadium allows us to host two ceremonies and welcome more family and friends of our graduates. A Friday schedule allows us to set Saturday as a rain date.”

 The Spring 2021 Commencement will be considerably larger than the past two commencement ceremonies. Currently, there are about 1,400 undergraduate and graduate students who have applied for graduation.

 The  Fall 2020 commencement had just under 700 graduates attend over three ceremonies. The Spring 2020 commencement was postponed because large gatherings were prohibited under the governor’s executive order. Tech worked with state officials to develop protocol for rescheduling the ceremony on August 8. About 660 graduates total attended three ceremonies according to Lykins.

“Our indoor option was to hold five, possibly six, ceremonies on Friday and Saturday and to limit guests,” Lykins explained. 

This is not the first time commencement ceremonies have been held on a Friday, as the university’s list of  commencement ceremony dates shows Tech has held ceremonies on Fridays. In the past 20 years or so, ceremonies have been on Saturday. However, many state universities choose to hold ceremonies on Friday, so it is not uncommon. 

While the change to a Friday is logical, it does present issues for some graduates in regard to having family and friends in attendance on what is typically a workday.

“I personally see where Tech is coming from with changing the date to Friday and it being outside. However, I think it puts parents and guardians in a tough position where they have to take off work to be there on that Friday,” Kaleigh Bray, senior Education major said. 

“Moving the commencement date from Saturday to Friday is making it more difficult for my family, because they’ll all have to take off work now, whereas they wouldn’t have on a Saturday. I feel that other people graduating will run into this same issue,” Kaitlin Vantrease, senior Communication major, said. 

Other students’ families may be forced to make tough decisions regarding missing two or more days of work if they are out of state and had planned to drive in.

Seniors graduating in May picked up their cap and gowns at senior salute in the RUC on March 2-3. Photo by Sam Vesely

“I was disappointed to find out the date was changed to a weekday. Father was going to come up from Florida on that Friday, but now he may not be able to make my graduation on time since he is driving up and cannot leave on Thursday,” Daniel Lopez, senior Interdisciplinary Studies major, said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the other out of state students have the same problem.”

Tech isn’t the only university changing their commencement ceremonies to accommodate in-person COVID-19 protocols. The University of Tennessee Knoxville, will hold five socially distanced ceremonies, including a graduate and professional hooding ceremony, that will take place May 7–9 in Neyland Stadium. The university plans to have 1,000 graduates in each ceremony with a limited number of guests for each graduate, according to the UTK website.

Vanderbilt University’s commencement, which was traditionally held on the second Friday in May,  is now scheduled for May 13-14. They listed the health and safety of their students and their families as their highest priority, according to Vanderbilt website.

Middle Tennessee State University will hold 12 to 15  small, in-person commencement graduation ceremonies  in Murphy Center on  May 7, 8 and 9. The number of in-person ceremonies will be determined by the number of students who reply with “I’m Attending,” by March 26. Masks and social distancing will be strictly enforced, according to the MTSU website.  

The decision to change the date from Saturday to Friday was based on the recommendations of the Committee on Commencements, Convocations, and Academic Ceremonies, a university standing committee with faculty, staff and students appointed by the President.  They explored several options on the number and location of commencement ceremonies in light of challenges related to COVID-19 protocol. The committee recommended the outdoor ceremonies on Friday to the President who shared it with his Cabinet. After discussion, the President decided to go forward with the recommendation, according to Lykins.

“Since all graduates, faculty and staff were notified, there have been five students who have asked me directly why we changed the date. There have been many positive responses to having an outdoor ceremony,” Lykins said.  

This commencement date change will have an impact on students, their families, the local economy and the university as a whole. The effects of COVID-19 will continue to influence parts of our lives as we move forward.