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Eastern Washington colleges contend with changing COVID-19 landscape on commencement plans

UPDATED: Wed., March 31, 2021

Whitworth University’s commencement ceremony from May 19, 2019, is seen at the Spokane Arena.  (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Whitworth University’s commencement ceremony from May 19, 2019, is seen at the Spokane Arena. (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

With nearly 5,500 students applying to graduate this spring from Washington State University, administrators knew early on that commencement ceremonies would be virtual for a third-straight semester due to coronavirus concerns.

WSU isn’t alone among institutions across Eastern Washington, as Eastern Washington University and the Community Colleges of Spokane are also planning virtual events. Meanwhile, Gonzaga University and Whitworth University have scheduled in-person commencements for May, though potential changes to the state’s COVID-19 restrictions make those plans subject to change over the next couple of months.

Gonzaga is planning on multiple outdoor events at the Mead School District’s new Union Stadium to cap off the spring 2021 semester. Ceremonies for the School of Law and graduate degree programs are scheduled for May 8, while three undergraduate ceremonies are set for May 9.

As part of Washington’s Phase 3 restrictions, outdoor venues are limited to certain levels of occupancy based on size. Under the current measures, the 4,500-seat Union Stadium would be capped at 25% capacity. Per the state guidance, capacity limitations will be reviewed April 15 to assess whether increases are warranted.

Gonzaga spokesman Pete Tormey said the university “will remain flexible to adjust student guests at the ceremonies as needed” in collaboration with the Spokane Regional Health District.

“We plan to ensure that every graduating student who wants to join us in person to celebrate their academic achievement has the opportunity to do so, with three or perhaps four guests per student,” Tormey said.

At Whitworth, meanwhile, spokeswoman Trisha Coder said approximately 600 graduate and undergraduate students are thus far planning to participate in this year’s ceremonies.

Whitworth has scheduled three events over two days at the Pine Bowl, the university’s football field. That includes a combined Class of 2020 undergraduate and graduate ceremony set for May 23 after the Class of 2021 undergraduate commencement that morning. Around 800 alumni are eligible to return for the Class of 2020 commencement.

The Class of 2020 had a virtual ceremony last May. Administrators initially hoped for an in-person version in October, but could not move forward due to public health guidelines at the time, Coder said.

“Now that those guidelines have loosened because of both the low COVID-19 numbers in our region and the successful vaccination program, we are confident that we will be able to organize in person ceremonies for our graduates,” she said.

Larger universities face ‘reality’Last year was the first time WSU held a virtual systemwide commencement, as the university’s individual campuses typically host their own events to close out the school year.

That includes four separate ceremonies over four days for the Pullman campus, said WSU spokesman Phil Weiler. Overall, 2,897 of the 5,497 students applying to graduate this spring are from WSU Pullman.

Here’s a breakdown from the other campuses, according to WSU:

• Everett: 79

• Spokane: 362

• Tri-Cities: 251

• Vancouver: 656

• Online: 661

Despite the lower numbers, Weiler said administrators did not feel in-person commencements would be feasible for the other campuses due to state restrictions. Even so, Weiler said WSU leaders agreed the experience should be uniform.

“Everybody is sad that we can’t do something in person,” he said, “and it wouldn’t be fair to do an in-person event for one group and not have something available for everybody else.”

WSU is planning another virtual systemwide commencement ceremony for Saturday, May 8.

All told, cancellations of in-person commencement ceremonies for May 2020, December 2020 and May 2021 have affected between 10,000 to 15,000 students, Weiler said.

Weiler said the university will survey current and former graduates for ideas on how to make up for that experience. One possible option could be walking in May 2022, whether during a combined ceremony with the spring graduates or a separate event if there’s enough interest.

“For well over a year now, we’ve been thinking about how do we put together an event for all of these students that missed out on the culmination of their college experience,” Weiler said. “There’s a number of different things that we’re exploring.”

Similarly, Eastern Washington University is “leaving the door open” for a possible in-person event welcoming alumni or recent graduates who missed out on a ceremony, said spokesman Dave Meany.

The university is hashing out the details for a virtual commencement ceremony. And while EWU did consider alternatives to a virtual commencement, Meany said the ideas never truly progressed due to logistics and safety guidelines.

“The university wants to share in the joy of this great moment and we understand and sympathize that this will be a disappointment to most,” Interim President David May and Provost Brian Levin-Stankevich said in a letter announcing the decision. “However, the reality is that 3,300 students are eligible for graduation this spring – plus alumni who graduated last year and many of our students are still awaiting the COVID vaccination.”

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