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Despite Rising COVID-19 Cases, Some Texas Universities Are Planning In-Person Fall Graduations

Texas Tech University senior Klay Davis is thrilled he'll have the chance to graduate college in person this December. But faculty across the state are concerned large in-person commencements could become super spreader events for COVID-19.
Justin Rex for The Texas Tribune
Texas Tech University senior Klay Davis is thrilled he'll have the chance to graduate college in person this December. But faculty across the state are concerned large in-person commencements could become super spreader events for COVID-19.

Texas Tech University senior Klay Davis worried for months that his 81-year-old grandmother wouldn’t get the chance to watch him walk across the graduation stage this December to receive his bachelor’s degree in animal science.

Graduations across the state were mostly shifted online or postponed this spring and summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Davis said a virtual event wasn’t going to cut it for his family.

“My grandma told my brother and I that her goal before she passes is to see [us] graduate college,” said Davis, who is graduating a semester early. He wanted that moment to celebrate, too. “I worked hard for a four-year degree. I think having such a memorable day, walking across that stage, is necessary.”

Davis got his wish. Texas Tech administrators said last month the university will host multiple in-person commencement ceremonies over a two-day period, as well as a virtual ceremony.

Other Texas universities are also planning to bring back in-person ceremonies this December, despite the fact that the state’s daily coronavirus case counts and hospitalizations are higher today than they were in May when most universities first scrambled to cancel the celebratory events.

But December’s graduation ceremonies will look different than usual — some spread out over several days to reduce crowd size and with new rules like caps on tickets and mask mandates. These events will be some of the first in-person college graduation ceremonies in the state since the pandemic began.

At Texas Tech, students helped drive the effort to bring back in-person commencement.

Representatives from the Texas Tech Student Government Association, including Davis who is student-body vice president, said they approached administration asking for an in-person option and found university leaders receptive to the idea.

“If we’re able to have safe gatherings for sports then we should be able to accommodate our students for such a monumental event,” said Hunter Heck, student-body president, who expects to graduate next spring. “Especially students who have been here for years, [and] have poured lots of money into this.”

Among the largest Texas universities planning in-person events are Texas Tech, Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas State University in San Marcos and the University of North Texas in Denton. Sam Houston State University said last month it would host commencement at the NRG Center in Houston.

Lamar University and Texas Southern University are also planning in-person graduation ceremonies. As of early November, Lamar University said on its website that it has reached max capacity for all six ceremonies.

But the Texas Faculty Association is opposing the shift back to in-person graduations. The group recently asked Gov. Greg Abbott to instruct university governing boards to postpone or hold fall graduation events virtually.

Abbott’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“Despite what some people would like to think, Texas hasn’t returned to normal yet,” said Pat Heintzelman, president of the Texas Faculty Association and an instructor at Lamar University in Beaumont, in a statement. “We are still in the middle of a deadly pandemic, and we fear in-person graduation events that include families and more than a handful of faculty members will be super-spreader events for the virus.”

College towns quickly became hot spotsfor COVID-19 when the fall semester began, especially in Lubbock and Brazos counties, where Texas Tech and Texas A&M are located. Texas A&M had kept cases down on campus, but has recently seen an uptick in the two weeks since Halloween. Lubbock continues to see cases increase beyond college-aged students. They also saw a spike in hospitalizations.

At least one school, South Texas College of Law Houston, already held in-person commencement this fall. They organized a marathon of 12 in-person ceremonies for students who graduated throughout the past year. Each ceremony had around 200 people with groups sitting at least four rows apart. Commencement speeches were delivered behind plexiglass. A university spokesperson said no COVID-19 cases have been traced back to the ceremonies which were held Oct. 17 and 18.

Still, many universities are maintaining virtual commencements this December, including Prairie View A&M, the University of Texas at San Antonio and various large community colleges across the state.

On its website, UTSA officials said while students are playing football at the indoor Alamodome, the university will not hold commencement because athletes are operating in “bubbles,” essentially remaining in quarantine with only their teammates.

“That’s not possible for the thousands of students, staff and faculty who come together to participate in each UTSA Commencement ceremony, not to mention the many friends and family members who come as spectators,” officials said on the university’s website.

The University of Texas at El Paso, wherecoronavirus cases continue to spike in the city, has not announced its plans for winter commencement yet.

University leaders organizing in-person events said they believe they can safely provide that moment of celebration for students and families.

“The ability to mark that milestone and actually walk across the stage and have that moment be celebrated is something that's been part of culture and tradition within higher education as a whole and certainly at A&M,” said Joe Pettibon, associate vice president for enrollment and academic services at Texas A&M.

Texas A&M typically graduates around 5,000 students each fall across four to five ceremonies. But this time, it plans to host 15 ceremonies over two weekends. Each ceremony will be limited to 324 students who will be located on the floor of Reed arena, the indoor stadium where basketball games are played. Graduates are allowed six guests who must sit together in the stands apart from other groups. Face masks will be required. Pettibon said ceremonies will be much shorter than usual given the smaller number of students and there will still be a student speaker at each ceremony.

A&M is also holding in-person ceremonies in February and March for spring and summer 2020 graduates whose commencements were postponed.

Pettibon said A&M is monitoring current trends, though he said they don’t have a specific trigger point that would cause the university to cancel the in-person commencements.

In Lubbock, Texas Tech will allow students to choose whether to attend a virtual or in-person ceremony. They’re holding the ceremonies at the university’s indoor United Supermarket basketball arena. Students will be limited to four guests. UNT will allow two guests per graduate and split commencement into two ceremonies at their outdoor football stadium. Sam Houston State University will also spread commencement over three ceremonies at NRG stadium. Texas Southern University is also holding eight in-person ceremonies over three days at their indoor Health and Physical Education arena on campus, which will be streamed virtually.

Some university commencements will include spring and summer graduates who want to participate. Other universities plan to hold in-person commencement ceremonies throughout spring 2021 for those who graduated in spring 2020, depending on the status of the pandemic.


From The Texas Tribune

Disclosure: Lamar University, Sam Houston State University, Texas A&M University, Texas Southern University, Texas Tech University, University of Texas at El Paso, University of Texas at San Antonio and University of North Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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