On April 1, Willamette President Steve Thorsett announced that this spring’s on-campus Commencement ceremonies would be cancelled due to the spread of COVID-19. In the same announcement, Thorsett said that this year’s graduates will be formally recognized virtually on May 17 and will be celebrated on campus in an alternate event when it is safe to do so. While the decision to cancel on-campus Commencement is a painful one for this year’s graduating class and their families, the decision is a necessary one and there are several alternatives worth considering.
One of the key ways the spread of COVID-19 is slowed and minimized is through social distancing. According to an April 3 article by Newsweek, social distancing measures have cut COVID-19 cases in Oregon by as much as 70 percent. Oregon’s stay-at-home order has been in effect since March 23, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting, but peak resource use isn’t projected for Oregon until April 21, according to data compiled by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). On April 2, the same IHME model predicted peak resource use for Oregon to be May 5. While Oregon’s COVID-19 cases rose above 1,000 on April 6, social distancing measures are flattening the curve of infections and saving lives, as shown in the drastic improvement in projections for Oregon over the past week.
While it is good news that the worst of COVID-19 may be behind Oregon after April 21, it is important to keep social distancing measures in place even after cases dip significantly. The IHME model makes its projections with the assumption that social distancing will continue through May, which is when Commencement is normally held. If social distancing is relaxed early, Oregon could see a second wave of infections. COVID-19 has proven to be highly transmissible due to its ability to pass from person to person through respiratory droplets and to survive on surfaces. It can be transmitted by those with mild and, in some cases, no symptoms at all, according to the World Health Organization. Its incubation period, the time between exposure to infection and the first appearance of symptoms, can range anywhere from one to 14 days. The spike in infections the country is seeing now are infections from one to two weeks ago. Oregon, and Willamette, need social distancing through May in order to prevent the possibility of a second wave of infections.
On-campus Commencement entails the gathering of hundreds of people in close proximity, which is not only dangerous for the graduates but also their families, and COVID-19 is especially deadly for the very old, according to Business Insider. On April 4, Oregon governor Kate Brown donated 140 ventilators to New York, leaving 762 ventilators available in the state, the Oregonian reported. These ventilators are essential for the survival of patients with the most severe cases, and with the reduced number of them now available it is even more important to keep social distancing measures in place. IHME’s projection for Oregon resource use could easily jump back up to May, as it was on April 2, if we are not careful.
Willamette, while its promise to hold an on-campus celebration of the graduates at some point in the future when safe is a good one, should be cautious before committing to a new date. Willamette students come from all across the country and from around the world. Even if COVID-19 has disappeared from Oregon, it wouldn’t be wise to hold an on-campus Commencement until the outbreak has disappeared from the United States. The COVID-19 outbreak is ever-changing and new information is coming out every day. The projections for all the states have been changing daily in both directions, and several states are more affected by the outbreak than Oregon. There is no telling when the outbreak will end, whether it is sooner or later. Willamette has to adapt to the daily new information just as the students do, and the decision to cancel Commencement was the right one given the information we have now.
Other universities around the country are similarly cancelling their graduation ceremonies. Some colleges are adding this year’s graduation ceremony to next year’s, some are postponing their ceremony, most are holding virtual ceremonies, but all are still adapting and coming up with plans. Willamette has committed to recognizing graduates on May 17 remotely, and while the details have not been specified as of April 6, Willamette students should think of additional ways to celebrate. Connection and community is especially important during this time, and Commencement alternatives will help with that. Discuss the loss and brainstorm ways with peers to celebrate graduation and keep the community thriving, whether it’s something small for your friend group or the creation of a larger community page or event. Have a party with your family in your house. Get your friends on a Zoom call and have your own quirky ceremony. Get creative. There are many alternatives out there and you don’t have to choose just one.
There’s an entire graduating class of students, from Willamette and elsewhere, looking for connection, closure and answers. Willamette is adapting as well as it can, but no solution can make things perfect or like nothing ever happened. This outbreak robbed this year’s graduates of their final months at Willamette and now Commencement. It’s okay to grieve. The pain and loss is real, but don’t experience these emotions alone. Call your loved ones, find connection and community. Reach out to a peer, for many are feeling alone right now. Social distancing does not mean isolation. This outbreak does not mean the parting of our community. We are greater than this crisis. More than ever, it is important to remember our motto: not unto ourselves alone are we born.