Why 7 colleges are adjusting mask policies for commencements

The CDC's new guidance has forced institutions to rethink how they will conduct their spring ceremonies.

Caps off to the University of Notre Dame. It reports that 90% of all students and 71% of faculty have been fully vaccinated. So, with the Centers for Disease Control’s recent guidance, those who have received COVID-19 doses can safely remove their masks.

Because of that work and with the blessing from the CDC, Notre Dame’s commencement activities and ceremonies today through Sunday will look vastly different than prior to that announcement.

“During the University Commencement Mass and University Commencement Ceremony on Sunday in Notre Dame Stadium, masking will be optional for all graduates who are vaccinated, as well as the official Platform Party,” President Rev. John Jenkins, Provost Marie Lynn Miranda and Executive Vice President Shannon Cullinan wrote in a letter to the community.

Masks might be off, but mitigation protocols at Notre Dame will remain during commencement. Graduates will be seated 3 feet apart. Groups of guests will be 6 feet apart. All faculty and guests will be asked to wear masks. Notre Dame will allow vaccinated students to unmask in residences and dorms, but it is encouraging faculty, staff and guests to wear them in any indoor facilities.

“Together let us bring the work of this semester to a good conclusion, and celebrate the wonderful accomplishments of our graduates,” Jenkins said.

Encouraging has been the go-to word for many colleges and universities during the past few months outside of the 380-plus institutions that have mandated vaccines.  Handcuffed by guidance from states, and with the new mask update, leaders can only press their communities to get vaccinated or wear masks.

Most have not had the same success in getting populations on board as Notre Dame. Some are located in states where vaccines doses have lagged, too. So for big gatherings such as commencements, there is a dilemma – require masks or not?

Tricky timing

The potential lifting of the mask requirements adds a sliver of uneasiness during higher education’s celebration season, especially for those institutions that had to delay their ceremonies.

Caught in the crosshairs of having to make a difficult decision at the last minute, the University of Oklahoma opted not to adjust its protocols for its ceremonies honoring the Classes of 2020 and 2021 this past weekend. The state of Oklahoma has only 32% of its citizens vaccinated, and just 40% have gotten the first dose. Here’s what officials told their community:

“Planning for a graduation in ordinary times is a months-long process, and this year it has been complicated further as the university has planned around the andemic and instituted safety protocols for this year’s events. We’re aware of the CDC’s newly issued guidance, but we also know that in Oklahoma, the majority of individuals are still not yet fully vaccinated. In light of that, and because it is too late for OU to change its protocols for events of this scale, we will still strongly encourage mask wearing, particularly for those who are not fully vaccinated. We also understand and respect those fully vaccinated individuals who choose to follow the new CDC recommendations relative to masking during graduation activities.”

On the other side of the Red River, the University of Texas at Austin is hosting its 138th main commencement ceremony on Saturday at 8 p.m. at Darrell Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. The state vaccination numbers in Texas look roughly the same as their neighbors, although the university said it has not registered a positive COVID case since May 7. Because of that latter success, President Jay Hartzell told the Longhorns community “some of those in attendance will wear masks and others will not” during the commencement.

“Masks are optional inside university buildings and outdoors,” Hartzell wrote. “For individuals who are not fully vaccinated or have weakened immune systems, masking and social distancing are optional but recommended. … In the immediate term, this new guidance will be in effect for our upcoming commencement celebrations and athletics competitions.” Hartzell did add this caveat: “We encourage our UT community to get vaccinated.”

Other colleges and universities have made adjustments as well:

In Massachusetts, the lifting of restrictions is allowing Williams College to let students invite six guests to its ceremony on May 31 at its football stadium, Farley-Lamb Field. Faculty and staff also will be able to attend.

“We will also no longer require tickets or registration for attendance,” President Maud Mandel wrote in a letter to the Williams community. “I am so pleased that we can open the festivities to more family and friends, and only regret the short notice necessitated by the timing of the state announcement.”

As for masks? Mandel wrote, “we will no longer require faculty, staff or students to wear masks outdoors as long as you are not at an event and practice social distancing. This applies to both vaccinated and unvaccinated people.”

Across the state, the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth –  which will have four ceremonies in mid-June – is telling its students and guests, “since this will be a large gathering, we encourage everyone to wear a mask – especially if you are not vaccinated.”

Unlike those institutions, the University of Maryland in College Park is requiring masks to be worn at its two commencements today based on guidance for large gatherings in Prince George County. The university is also keeping its guests socially distanced and not having a processional for students.

Likewise, Syracuse University is keeping masks on while continuing to follow New York State public health guidance right up to its Saturday morning ceremony.

“Given the anticipated influx of outside visitors to our campus this week and through the weekend, public health advisors believe it is prudent that our current on-campus masking and distancing policy remain in place through commencement,” J. Michael Haynie, Vice Chancellor for Strategic Initiatives and Innovation, told Syracuse students, families, faculty and staff.

In Pennsylvania at Lehigh University, COVID-19 team officials are allowing for masks to be removed for both “vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals” once inside Goodman Stadium for its Monday morning outdoor ceremony. But they do say masks are needed when physical distancing of 6 feet can’t occur, when using buses and when guests and students are talking with volunteers.

“We recognize some students, faculty, staff and guests may choose to continue voluntarily wearing a mask for personal safety, medical or other reasons,” Lehigh officials wrote in a letter to the community. “We encourage members of the community to support one another in those decisions and to not make anyone feel stigmatized for wearing a mask.”

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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