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Universities air plans for in-person graduation — days after bill proposed to force them

Universities air plans for in-person graduation — days after bill proposed to force them

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The Iowa State Capitol building Friday, July 31, 2020, in Des Moines.

IOWA CITY — Just days after a Republican lawmaker introduced a bill that would force Iowa’s public universities to hold graduations in-person this spring — after two of them already had announced plans for virtual ceremonies — all three campuses announced Monday they’re now developing in-person options.

“The format will be designed to honor and celebrate the achievements of our graduates while practicing the university’s guidelines for social distancing and mandatory face coverings,” according to a University of Iowa announcement that reversing an earlier decision to keep all commencement celebrations virtual again this spring.

Joining the UI in the about-face was the University of Northern Iowa.

“We are pleased to announce plans for limited in-person spring 2021 commencement events on May 7 and 8,” UNI President Mark Nook wrote. “These in-person events will supplement the previously announced virtual ceremony, and graduates are encouraged to participate in both.”

UNI is planning three “modified” ceremonies in the UNI-Dome “designed to safely celebrate the accomplishments of our graduates and protect the health of our campus community.” The campus is allowing graduates to invite a limited number of guests.

“The university will livestream the ceremonies for those who cannot attend,” according to Nook’s message. “Due to the limited number of individuals we can host in the UNI-DOME, these ceremonies will only be for May 2021 graduates. We will honor May and December 2020 graduates at a later date.”

Iowa State University — which, unlike the UI and UNI waited to announce plans for spring graduation — Monday reported its will “hold modified in-person spring 2021 commencement celebrations.”

The larger ISU celebrations — for bachelor’s and master’s graduates — will be outside in Jack Trice Stadium. Ceremonies for doctorate and veterinary medicine graduates will take place in Hilton Coliseum. Both will require masking and social distancing.

“These decisions have been informed by our monitoring of COVID-19 on campus and in the community, as well as our experience with safely allowing limited attendance at athletic events where guests wear face coverings and practice physical distancing,” according to a message from ISU President Wendy Wintersteen. “While it is our intent to offer modified in-person commencement activities, we will change course if necessary and as conditions warrant to maintain the safety of our graduates and guests.”

Weeks ago — at the start of the semester — the UI and UNI said they again would hold virtual commencements this spring to avoid the spread of COVID-19, just like they did last spring and after the fall semester.

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, last week introduced House Study Bill 246 that would force the universities to hold in-person ceremonies during the normal May and June times and to allow graduates to invite at least two guests.

“The universities may establish protocols for the control and prevention of COVID-19, as deemed necessary,” the proposed bill said.

Wintersteen said her school’s in-person graduation events “will be limited to only those students graduating in Spring 2021 or Summer 2021, in order to safely accommodate graduates and guests.”

She said ISU is “committed” to someday inviting spring, summer and fall 2020 graduates — whose traditional ceremonies became virtual in the pandemic — for a future in-person commencement “when conditions allow.”

Even so, in-person graduations on the universities this spring could bring tens of thousands to the campuses. Last spring, the UI graduated 5,473 undergraduate, graduate and professional students; ISU graduated 5,094; and UNI graduated 1,422.

UI officials promised more details of their in-person commencement options by March 19. UNI and ISU, too, vowed to share more details later, including inclement weather plans at ISU. So far, ISU says it plans:

Bachelor’s event: Undergraduates will be recognized through a series of separate events May 8 at Jack Trice Stadium. Organized by college, the ceremonies will feature shorter-than-usual programming to confer the degrees; reading of individual names as graduates cross the stage; and formal graduation photographs.

“We do not anticipate needing to limit guest attendance due to the large capacity and outdoor setting of the stadium. All graduates and guests will be required to wear face coverings and practice physical distancing.”

Master’s event: The graduates will be recognized in a similar celebration at 11 a.m. May 7 at Jack Trice.

Ph.D. and DVM events: Commencement ceremonies for doctoral and veterinary medicine graduates will be in-person at 3 p.m. May 7 at Hilton Coliseum.

“These programs will also be modified, and guest attendance will be limited to ensure physical distancing. As for the bachelor’s and master’s events, all graduates and guests will be required to wear face coverings and practice physical distancing,” ISU said.

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