The University will host an in-person Commencement celebration on or around May 24 but will prohibit guests from coming to campus, University President Peter Salovey wrote in a campuswide email on Monday.
The University will use Old Campus for ceremonies of up to 500 people at a time, University Secretary Kimberly Goff-Crews said. Some Yale schools are considering using the space for their celebrations. Graduating students can attend regardless of whether they are studying on campus or remotely, though public health experts are still working out a required testing and quarantine procedure for students who arrive on campus. Students from the class of 2020 will not be allowed to attend in-person celebrations for the second year in a row, though Yale will invite them back to campus once public health conditions allow. The University Secretary’s Office — which handles Commencement planning — and deans of Yale’s schools will reach out to students with more details in the coming days.
“At the end of the day, I really believe that although it will be different it will still be very meaningful,” Goff-Crews said.
Though the year is unusual, the team is trying to incorporate Yale traditions, Director of University Events Heather Calabrese said. Students will still don caps and gowns, there will be marshals and banner-bearers as per usual — though they might not be allowed onstage — and there will be music, whether live or recorded. The University will mail students their diplomas on June 4, as the compressed academic schedule means that faculty cannot finalize grades before Commencement.
Yale’s public health experts do not think that all of the campus community will be immunized by Commencement, Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun said. Still, administrators wanted to allow students to gather in person because they knew that it is what students would prefer, he added. But the in-person celebration comes with caveats: Guests are not invited, both for lack of social distancing space and because it is not safe to invite so many people to travel to New Haven, even if Yale imposed quarantines and other restrictions, Chun said.
According to Chun, if infection rates increase and the state changes its guidelines, Yale might reconsider its decision to allow students to attend in person. The University will change this plan and hold a fully virtual Commencement if there is a precipitous rise in cases that mirrors last spring and public health experts advise it, Goff-Crews added.
Even if vaccines are more widely available, Goff-Crews said the University likely would not change its plans to allow guests. Commencement proceedings are usually planned the year before they happen, so the planning time is now too short — it is too logistically challenging to “turn too much on a dime” and still maintain safe conditions and equity for students, she said.
The Commencement Office and public health experts are working on policy guidelines that organizers from all of Yale’s schools can use in preparing their Commencement ceremonies. This guidance will include information regarding how people can file into and out of the venue and maintain social distancing, hand sanitizer availability and speaker guidelines, such as when to remove masks.
Salovey will speak publicly to Yale College and record his remarks for the graduating class on the Yale 2021 website, which will offer virtual proceedings for family and other guests. The Yale 2021 website will have a different tone from the one that celebrated the class of 2020. It will focus less on the shock of the pandemic and more on celebrating the graduates, Calabrese said. There will be space for photos, videos and other contributed content from the graduates.
External speakers and honorary degree recipients are considered guests, so they will have to record speeches, speak via Zoom or be featured in photos or tributes. This includes Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who is slated to speak at the School of Public Health’s Commencement.
Yale’s graduate and professional schools are still deciding on where to hold their celebrations. Some, like the Divinity School, have spaces that can accommodate crowds, though a maximum of 200 people is expected.
Representatives from the Secretary’s Office have been meeting with health and safety advisers for several weeks as case rates improved and the governor announced he would ease restrictions. Last week, they went to the Public Health Advisory Committee to talk about the plans. Given the spread of the more transmissible B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant, it took until last week for the possibility of in-person graduation events to solidify, Goff-Crews said.
Associate professor of epidemiology Luke Davis said the safest way to gather is outdoors in small groups that wear masks and socially distance.
“SARS-CoV2 spreads mostly through shared air, especially in close indoor spaces,” Davis wrote in an email to the News. “Crowds can create super-spreader events, which with travel can disseminate viruses far and wide. That’s particularly dangerous right now with new more infectious and more deadly virus variants emerging, as the world races to vaccinate enough people to reduce case rates, mutations, and the much-feared emergence of vaccine-resistant variants.”
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont has announced plans to allow social and recreational outdoor gatherings of up to 200 people at commercial venues starting March 19. Beginning April 2, outdoor event venues can also increase to 50 percent capacity, capped at 10,000 people, under Lamont’s new guidelines.
Among Yale’s peer institutions, the University’s plans fall in the middle, between the more conservative and the less restrictive. Harvard University has announced it will hold a remote Commencement celebration, whereas Princeton University will invite students and up to two guests to the university’s stadium.
“I know many people’s families come from far and wide to watch graduation and for that I’m sorry that they won’t be able to celebrate with us, but it’s important that Yale (and New Haven) not get overly confident about COVID safety and jump straight into a large event,” Kesi Wilson ’21 wrote in an email to the News. “Commencement normally has hundreds of people which at this point is a giant health hazard. I’m happy for now that the school is erring on the side of caution, even though it sucks.”
Yale’s Commencement was held online last year.
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