Like classes, 2021 homecomings are mix of in-person, hybrid and virtual

A few institutions, including Georgetown, have opted to cancel them altogether because of transmission fears.

There is nothing quite like the emotion and pageantry of homecoming. A bustling campus, an afternoon football game and the gathering of alumni in the fall create a special atmosphere often not replicated at any point on the academic calendar.

Last year, COVID-19 drove a dagger through planned events at most colleges and universities. This year, the climate is different. In-person learning is occurring. Outbreaks, for the most part, have been tempered. Faculty and students have gotten vaccinated. Expectations are higher. And college football stadiums across the nation have been packed the past few weeks, a sign that perhaps at least one tradition is making a successful comeback.

But caution is still being exercised by some institutions. Georgetown University has canceled all of its homecoming events, and Morehouse College is among several Historically Black Colleges and Universities changing how activities will look this year because of the surge of the delta variant and what bringing outsiders to campus might mean in terms of transmission.

“Morehouse College has worked diligently to create a safe learning and living environment, even as the COVID-19 delta variant has spread throughout the state and the nation,” said Morehouse President David Thomas. “The near 100% rate of students and employees who have met our vaccination requirement, along with frequent testing and monitoring, has allowed the College to create a relatively closed campus environment where the vaccination and COVID positivity status of each student and employee is known. Unfortunately, this week Georgia broke a record for COVID-19 hospitalizations. The state has the sixth-highest per capita infection rate in the nation. Given the circumstances, a massive in-person gathering on our campus presents a public health risk to our students which is impossible to ignore. Keeping our students safe is our top priority.”

So Morehouse has shifted to a “student-only festival” on Oct. 16, where it will allow students, employees and those from participating Atlanta University Center Consortium institutions to participate. It also took the homecoming tag off of its football game against Fort Valley State University, has reduced capacity and will not allow tailgating, one of the signature features of its annual event. Nearby Spelman College opted in early September to take its “Stronger Together: A Forever Sisterhood” alumni events and host them virtually in mid-October. It is still working on homecoming plans for students.

Another HBCU, Hampton University in Virginia, is hosting its fall homecoming but putting lots of protocols in place, including the masking of all individuals at activities both indoors and outside. All fans who attend their football game on Oct. 9 against Kennesaw State must show proof of vaccination and even those 12 and under must provide proof of a negative COVID test within 72 hours of the event. It has canceled its Homecoming Bazaar and Parade and is limiting guests at its Forty Under 40 Induction Ceremony, which is now taking place off-campus.

“Attendees at this event must submit their name, home address, phone number, and email address prior to entry in the event that contact tracing must occur,” the university said in a statement.

Many institutions are opting to take a hybrid approach to homecoming to maintain social distancing and safety. Purdue University is planning on both virtual and in-person activities during its weeklong celebrations, but alumni will be welcomed at several live events, including its homecoming parade and its football game against the University of Minnesota at Ross-Ade Stadium.

“After an unpredictable year, one that included an all-virtual Homecoming in 2020, we are thrilled to welcome our alumni back to campus,” said Matt Folk, president and CEO of the Purdue for Life Foundation. “For those who are unable to be here in person, we have planned several virtual events so all alumni and friends can take part.”

Unfortunately, some felt like they just couldn’t pull it off this year, including Aurora College.

“With increasing cases of COVID occurring throughout the state of Illinois and the country, with the impact of Governor Pritzker’s executive order, and with concern about the health of both the on-campus and larger Aurora community, we must take into consideration the health and safety of all those involved,” officials wrote to the community. “This decision was not made lightly. We are aware that plans have been made, hotels have been booked, and airline tickets purchased. To this end, the university will reimburse alumni for airline tickets purchased to attend this year’s Homecoming weekend.”

In one state where COVID cases are reaching levels not seen since last December and where less than 50% of its population is fully vaccinated, the University of Montana’s alumni association is taking a guarded approach to its mostly outdoor activities planned for homecoming. While it has canceled its annual parade, it is hosting its pep rally this Friday night and its football game against Cal Poly on Saturday. Both are open to the public.

The University of Oklahoma is planning a full schedule of events for homecoming in mid-October, including its Rah! Rally at the Lloyd Noble Center on Friday and its football game against Texas Christian University. Because of bans on mask and vaccine mandates in the state, OU is simply encouraging those who attend events, especially indoors to follow safety protocols. But its Campus Activities Council does note that “the university is proactively monitoring COVID-19.”

Speaking of indoor events, Midnight Madness is often a part of homecoming at some institutions. Marquette University next week is hosting its introduction event for its basketball teams at the Al Maguire Center, along with a Sean Kingston concert and a volleyball match prior to the raucous ceremony.

The decision to host live events is made easier at institutions such as Marquette, which is one of more than 1,000 colleges and universities requiring vaccinations this year. So far, 93% of students and 85% of faculty have gotten COVID-19 doses. Masks are required in indoor spaces on campus. Still, there have been 59 confirmed positive cases on campus in the past two weeks. To remain safe, the message this fall before homecoming at most colleges and universities: follow the safety guidelines and protocols that have been designed by institution officials.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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