Eastern Michigan University will host a pair of commencement ceremonies Saturday that might look different from most this spring, including one happening at the same time across the state. Everyone in attendance at the George Gervin GameAbove Center will be wearing masks.
The same won’t be true at Western Michigan University, where face coverings are only being encouraged, or at hundreds of other institutions that have chosen a more “normal” return to ceremonies this spring as they hope to recapture the feel of 2019 graduations. Students and leaders at those schools, including Gannon University in Pennsylvania, have expressed that they are thrilled to see each other in person with zero restrictions. They received at least a partial endorsement Wednesday from infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci, who proclaimed that the nation has moved past the “acute phase of the pandemic.”
But even Fauci pointed out that COVID is not finished, and in some locales the BA.2 omicron subvariant is spreading like wildfire. Cases are up more than 100% in eight states over the past two weeks and hospitalizations are rising in 29 states. In Michigan, positive results are 75% higher than they were two weeks ago. Even as student populations remain largely unfazed by severe COVID outcomes, should colleges be worried about the increased risk to guests and others, especially in indoor gatherings where masks, pre-event testing and no vaccine requirement will be in place?
“Every year, colleges have contingency plans in place for all types of events, weather, illness,” says Gerri Taylor, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 Task Force. “So, no difference here—their planning committees always consider many factors. Certainly outdoor commencement is preferable … and mask wearing, hand sanitizers, distancing and other mitigation measures, pending case prevalence. The best strategy is for colleges to follow the data: the case counts at the college, their local area and state wastewater measures, and vaccination rates with boosters.”
Few institutions have been following the data more closely than Temple University, which recently had to reinstate a mask mandate after the city of Philadelphia installed an indoor requirement. A few days ago that was lifted, allowing Temple to proceed with campus operations and its indoor commencement scheduled for May 5 with masking not required.
“While masks are again optional, that does not mean the pandemic is over,” Mark Denys, director of Student and Employee Health Services, told the community. “Everyone should continue to consider their own personal risks and decide for themselves whether they want to continue to wear a mask in all or certain situations.”
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Another university monitoring public health guidance from its city has been Tulane University, located in the heart of New Orleans. Though there has been another uptick in COVID-19 cases—Orleans Parish cases are up 168% in the past two weeks—Tulane was able to hold a beautiful commencement ceremony for its Class of 2020 last weekend without restrictions outdoors at Yulman Stadium. President Michael Fitts thanked unmasked students for their perseverance. “You’ve demonstrated resilience, flexibility, persistence, and a good sense of humor,” Fitts told the graduates. “You’ve faced a crisis. And you’re not only still standing, you’re moving forward. Each of you learned the most important lesson you can carry with you every day for the rest of your life: The knowledge that you can do hard things.”
Other strategies forming
In Los Angeles, the University of Southern California is moving ahead with its commencement ceremony slated for May 13 without any mandates, although officials are telling those who plan to attend that they should be masking if they need to and checking for any signs that they might be sick. L.A. County’s numbers have risen in the past two weeks but only about 15%, while hospitalizations have dropped nearly 20%.
In the city that never sleeps, Columbia University is taking the opposite approach as hospitalizations have risen nearly 25%. It is planning a number of mitigation strategies for its commencement ceremony on May 18, subject to change. Full proof of vaccination is required for all students and attendees. Everyone over the age of 2 must wear masks. Those who have exemptions must submit proof of a negative COVID test 48 hours before the event. That policy extends beyond commencement to any campus gathering.
Taylor says no matter what plans are for commencement or the rest of the semester on campus, special consideration should be given to community members, faculty or guests who may have comorbidities. Encouraging masks or giving guidance like USC, and not just saying ceremonies are free from all restrictions, might be better messaging given the still-challenging COVID environment. She said the Task Force is working on new guidance for institutions that could be released by the summer.
“Anyone who has risk factors or family or friends with risk factors or who if they or family members cannot be immunized should take strong measures to protect themselves, wear masks, avoid indoor spaces and physical distance,” Taylor said. “Others should not discriminate. There are many reasons people mask. Of course, it also would be helpful if others mask as well if they are near people who are at risk.”
Two other considerations worth noting as campuses wind down their semesters include self-testing and the availability of potential antiviral medications. Many institutions are doing far fewer tests, relying on students to do at-home tests and report when they get positive results. Messaging should let students know that if they are self-testing they must be aware to check the results very closely. “Even the faintest line on the rapid tests means positive,” Taylor says. “Even the faintest of lines still means fully contagious.” Those on campus who have comorbidities may be eligible for antiviral medication, though there are restrictions to getting it and there can be side effects. If identified within the first few days of exposure, it has shown to be 90% effective against severe outcomes.
“Campuses should be letting their community members know where to get the meds,” Taylor says. “There needs to be more information about who is a candidate for them, how to get them and where they can get them. Some providers are not aware that they can prescribe them. They need to have more solid information about the medications, side effects, contraindications, candidacy, availability and dosing.”