A large college graduation is the stuff of nightmares for epidemiologists during a global pandemic.
The sheer number of people that attend violates, by a hundred fold, one of the cardinal rules of public health: gather, if you gather at all, in small groups. Family members who’ve traveled from across the country to sit in densely packed sports stands spew spittle as they scream their graduate’s name. Thousands of people embrace each other at almost every opportunity — they hug friends, kiss family, shake professors’ hands.
This spring, the University of New Hampshire will attempt to transform a celebration ripe with transmission opportunities into a COVID-safe event. If successful, the event may serve as a blueprint for organizers hoping to bring thousands of people together while the pandemic drags on.
Newly released guidance from the university stipulates attendees will need to provide a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of the event, or a vaccination card that shows they have been fully vaccinated for at least two weeks. Graduating students are held to the same standard if they haven’t participated in the school’s weekly testing program.
Though the school is limiting the number of guests in attendance— each graduate will be given only two tickets—the multi-day event will still attract thousands of people.
The four-day event, which will honor current undergraduate and graduate students as well as those who graduated in 2020, will require masks and social distancing, though how the school will enforce these policies is still unclear. Erika Mantz, a spokesperson for the University of New Hampshire, said there will be seven separate ceremonies which will make it possible to social distance in the Wildcat stadium.
The university declined to say how many people they expect to attend the scaled down graduations, though thousands will likely attend the various ceremonies: There are more than 3,000 undergraduates in the Class of 2021 and about 2,900 students in the Class of 2020, according to admission statistics.
Based on raw numbers, each of the seven events could attract more than 2,000 people between students and guests.
UNH is attempting a feat few other New Hampshire schools have dared. Dartmouth College, Keene State College and Plymouth State University will each hold intimate ceremonies with only their students in attendance.
“We cannot take that large of a risk during the pandemic,” read a letter from administrators at Keene State College.
A memo from Dartmouth College attributed its decision to travel restrictions, uneven global access to the COVID-19 vaccine, and the uncertainty of whether the vaccine prevents someone from spreading the virus to others.
“Most New England higher education institutions are not allowing any guests this year at their commencement ceremonies and some have gone even farther, making the ceremony virtual even for graduates,” Mantz said. “Because we know that commencement is important to graduating students and their families, especially this year, we worked hard to find a way to allow limited guests at our various outdoor commencement ceremonies.”
UNH is taking a calculated risk— though the school acknowledged on its website that “inviting individuals outside of this testing bubble increases the risk of infection.” Mandating proof of vaccinations or negative COVID tests lessens the chance of infections at the ceremony, administrators said.
The calculation seems to depend on the widespread availability of the vaccine by late May. By some estimates, about 50% of the state’s population will be fully vaccinated by the first day of UNH celebrations. Despite the fact that New Hampshire’s vaccination rollout has outpaced most U.S. states, public health experts worry it’s not fast enough.
With a little more than a month until the graduation ceremony, new cases of the virus are still rising at an alarming pace in the Granite State. Over the last week, 437 people have tested positive for the virus, an 11% increase from the week before. Many of these cases seemed centered at UNH’s Durham campus— 96 students have tested positive for the virus in the last week, according to the university’s testing dashboard.
Jake Leon, a spokesperson for the New Hampshire Department of Health, said the department is aware of UNH’s plan to hold an in-person ceremony and believes it can be done safely if all the public health guidelines are followed.
The school cautioned that plans were based on the current prevalence of the virus and could change rapidly if circumstances change.
(These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.)