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New rules open door for graduation ceremonies

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam released preliminary guidance last week for how K-12 schools, colleges and universities may safely hold in-person graduation and commencement ceremonies this spring.

According to a Wednesday, March 17, release, Northam’s tentative plans for graduation events are expected to be included in an April 1 update to the Third Amended Executive Order 72.

Ralph Northam

The state now recommends graduation ceremonies held outdoors can be capped at 5,000 people or 30% of the venue capacity, whichever figure is less.

Graduation and commencement ceremonies held indoors may have up to 500 people in attendance or 30% of venue capacity, whichever is less.

Officials advise attendees at such events must wear face masks and follow other safety guidelines to ensure proper social distancing.

“I appreciate the work that our schools, students and teachers have put in to get back into the classroom safely, and the efforts of public health officials and education leaders in developing guidelines for safe graduations and commencements this spring,” Northam said. “We are releasing this guidance early to allow schools to begin planning for this year’s events. While graduation and commencement ceremonies will still be different than they were in the past, this is a tremendous step forward for all of our schools, our graduates and their families.”

The new guidelines may have a big impact on how local schools and colleges are preparing for this spring’s graduation events.

Longwood University Assistant Vice President of Communications Matt McWilliams said Monday, March 22, Longwood is currently planning for an in-person, outdoor commencement to celebrate Longwood’s Class of 2021, emphasizing there will be careful precautions in place.

“We plan to share details about commencement after the governor’s executive order is finalized in the coming weeks,” he said. “Part of our planning process is assessing details of the governor’s guidance and how it applies to our available outdoor space, which will determine how many people can gather on campus. Due to spacing requirements, that number is almost certainly less than the potential 5,000-person cap that the governor’s office announced, but we are considering all options available while awaiting final and official guidance.”

Hampden-Sydney Director of Communications and Marketing Gordon Neal said the college is currently planning to hold outdoor commencement ceremonies for both the classes of 2020 and 2021 on April 24 and May 8, respectively.

“COVID-19 precautions like mask wearing and social distancing will be enforced at these events, and attendance will be limited,” Neal said Friday, March 19. “While the college is still in the process of determining how the governor’s new guidance will inform our capacity limits for guests at these ceremonies, we are thrilled for the opportunity to celebrate the achievements of our graduates in person. At the same time, the college will continue to maintain its rigorous commitment to all COVID-19 precautions as well as current and future guidance from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), VDH (Virginia Department of Health), and the Office of the Governor.”

Prince Edward County Public Schools (PECPS) Superintendent Dr. Barbara Johnson said PECPS still plans to honor its graduates on Saturday, May 22, in a formal ceremony.

“We are looking forward to a spring full of celebrations as we end a challenging year,” Johnson said Thursday, March 18.

“We continue to discuss the mitigation strategies that will be necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of our students, families and community while celebrating this milestone,” she added.

Other schools are still sorting out a date and time for their 2021 graduation ceremonies.

“I was glad to see the preliminary guidance regarding graduations,” Cumberland County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Chip Jones said Friday. “At this time, we are finalizing our plans for our graduation.”

“We are in the planning stage for an outside graduation ceremony and will follow the guidance we received,” Buckingham County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Daisy Hicks said Thursday. “We can provide more information once it is finalized.”