Despite initial disappointment concerning the cancellation of Final Exercises as planned for the Class of 2021, some fourth years expressed optimism given University President Ryan’s recent announcement that the University is reevaluating its plans thanks to the relaxation of statewide guidelines related to graduation ceremonies.
“Restrictions related to graduation have been substantially — indeed, dramatically — revised,” Ryan said in a tweet on March 17.
Originally, graduation events would have been categorized as gatherings under state COVID-19 guidelines, which have a maximum capacity of 25 people. Now that graduation events are characterized as outdoor ceremonies, they are permitted to have up to 5,000 people or 30 percent of the venue capacity.
In a traditional year, thousands of people — including graduating students, parents, guests and faculty members — come together on the Lawn to celebrate graduating students. Normally, the students would line up by the Rotunda to walk down the Lawn, symbolizing their commencement into a world after the University. They would then sit facing away from the Rotunda, toward Old Cabell Hall, for an approximately two-hour long ceremony. There are also individual, small ceremonies held by each department to celebrate the graduating students.
Fourth-year College student Morgan Ackley noted she is happy the University has expressed its willingness to adapt the plans for graduation.
“I’m very happy to see that the University leadership has been so responsive and willing to adapt its original plans based on these new guidelines from the governor and the overwhelming negative response to their original statement,” Ackley said. “I hope that the revised plan Jim Ryan releases in April will take into account all of the feedback from students, alumni and others.”
Ryan first informed the Class of 2021 of the cancellation of Final Exercises on March 3. The decision was made due to limited size gatherings permitted by the Commonwealth and travel restrictions that would hinder family and friends from attending the ceremony. Instead, Ryan said the University was considering two alternative ways of holding Final Exercises — postponing an in-person ceremony to a later date or holding a modified celebration in accordance with health guidelines and without any spectators.
Either way, Ryan said University students will be able to celebrate their accomplishments.
“I remain confident we will be able to celebrate and honor your class in a way that will be both meaningful and memorable,” Ryan said.
Fourth-year College student Thomas Dale was looking forward to having his family watch him walk down the Lawn at the end of his final year at the University. After Ryan’s first announcement about Final Exercises, Dale thought the decision was made too soon.
“Given the possibility that vaccines will be available to all adults by May, I think it’s premature to make this decision about graduation now,” Dale said at the time.
On March 11, President Joe Biden said he will direct states to make all adults ages 18 and up eligible for the vaccine by May 1. As of Wednesday, 25 percent of Virginia residents have been vaccinated with at least one dose, with an average of 50,358 doses being administered each day. Virginia is ranked 15th in vaccine distribution nationally. A total of 56,187 doses have been administered in Albemarle, while 20,223 doses have been given in Charlottesville.
When the first Final Exercises update was released, Dale added the University should consider holding an in-person, socially distanced event that would allow for the possibility of parents attending Final Exercises.
“I think another possibility would be for the University to provide various time slots for the day of Final Exercises in which graduating students could sign up for,” Dale said. “That way you and all your friends could walk the Lawn at the same time and parents could come.”
Ackley also said she thought the University’s first announcement was premature considering there is so much uncertainty about vaccination, and it is possible most adults could be vaccinated by graduation.
“I’m glad the University gave us an update on their thoughts for graduation so that we can begin to plan and tell our families what they can expect, but I think the degree to which they’ve already limited our options is a bit premature,” Ackley said.
Additionally, Ackley said walking the Lawn during Final Exercises is something that is very important to her college experience, since she grew up listening to her parents talk about how Final Exercises was such a unique and important experience.
“For me, walking the Lawn in-person is a very important part of my U.Va. experience,” Ackley said. “I grew up listening to both of my parents, who graduated in ‘93, talk about how pivotal and monumental the experience of walking the Lawn is.”
Ackley said she hopes the University will make an effort to allow some sort of safe, in-person graduation, even if it means students will have the opportunity to walk in small, socially-distanced groups with masks over the span of several days.
Around the same time last year, the University made the decision to cancel Final Exercises with the possibility of holding the ceremony at a later date. The Class of 2020’s ceremony was first postponed until October 2020 then until the end of May 2021. However, given Ryan’s March 3 announcement, graduation for the Class of 2020 has once again been postponed — this time until summer 2022.
Kelley Johnston, a 1987 Commerce alumnus, said walking the Lawn on graduation day is an honor every University student should experience, but understood the hardships — such as balancing stringent health guidelines while providing students with a meaningful experience — that the University faces given the ongoing crisis of COVID-19.
“It really boils down to walking down the Lawn,” Johnston said. “As a parent and a former student, I am really torn. As a parent, you really want to see your child graduate but it is also hard to see that many people all in one place.”
While Johnston said the presence of parents and friends adds to the graduation experience, she highlighted that ultimately, “it is all about the last time there with your friends.”
“The Class of 2021 has already had one of the most unique and challenging U.Va. experiences of any class,” Ackley said. “They arrived here just after the Unite the Right rally of August 2017, and now many of the most important moments of their last year have been taken from them by COVID. I think it’s important that the University do everything in their power to allow for some type of safe, in-person graduation.”
The University will announce its decision on Final Exercises for the Class of 2021 by April 2.