The University of Virginia is encouraging all guests coming to its in-person graduation ceremonies in May to test negative for COVID-19 prior to arrival in Charlottesville and to get vaccinated when eligible.
In an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow, UVA spokesperson Wes Hester said that UVA leaders have spent months planning Final Exercises in accordance with state regulations and public health guidance.
“As we prepare for these important celebrations, we continue to monitor the progression of the virus and urge all members of our community to do everything that they can to reduce the prevalence of the virus,” Hester said.
The university announced last week that all graduating students, as well as those who graduated in 2020, can participate in in-person ceremonies during two separate weekends in May. The Class of 2021’s finals weekend is set to span May 21 to May 23, while the Class of 2020 is expected to participate in its delayed graduation on May 16.
The university plans to hold five separate ceremonies, separated by school, throughout the Class of 2021’s graduation weekend.
Final Exercises will be held in Scott Stadium — a venue with a 61,500 person capacity and the only one on Grounds to adhere with all state regulations.
Charlottesville City Councilor Michael Payne said the outdoor graduation itself can “be done safely” with adherence to proper social distancing measures and masking. What could happen after the ceremonies — like indoor parties or dinners — concerns him.
“What I am worried about is less so the graduation, but more families and students dining indoors or partying indoors because, from what we know, the risk of outdoor transmission is low … but that’s not going to apply to people who are going out to restaurants, bars, partying indoors,” Payne said. “We’re nearing the end, but we’re not there yet, and we can’t get a sense of complacency.”
As of Thursday, there are 88 active cases of COVID-19 within the university community — 73 of which are student cases.
UVA’s COVID-19 model — a computer model used by the Virginia Department of Health to forecast pandemic trends — cautions that if prevention measures loosen and virus variants become more widespread, Charlottesville may see another peak of cases in the late spring.
Hester noted that the university has been in “constant contact with local and state leaders” regarding its graduation plans. BRHD spokesperson Jason Elliott said health district officials have provided UVA with recommendations for mitigation strategies during finals weekend.
The decision to conduct in-person graduations comes after Gov. Ralph Northam announced in March that both universities and K-12 schools may hold outdoor ceremonies with up to 5,000 attendees or 30 percent of the venue capacity, whichever is less.
Before Northam’s rule change, UVA was weighing postponing final exercises or conducting them this spring without guests. Now, each graduating student will be permitted two guests for the ceremonies.
Both graduating students and guests will be required to mask while on-Grounds and at the ceremony and to stay home if they are sick.
Payne encouraged all UVA students and their graduation guests to make appointments for a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as they can. Everyone over the age of 16 will be eligible to receive a vaccine through BRHD starting Monday.
“I just really encourage every student attending graduation, every parent or guest planning to attend — if they haven’t already gotten their vaccine — to schedule the appointment and get it because it will very much help mitigate risk,” Payne said.
Additional information about UVA’s graduation plans can be found on their Office of Major Events website.