SALEM — In just a few weeks, a second graduating class will miss the traditional trappings of a commencement ceremony.
But with more time to plan, area schools have come up with some creative ways to address requirements of social distancing, limited crowd sizes and concerns over contact amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Salem State University President John Keenan called the graduates of 2020 and 2021 “amazingly resilient.”
“While I wanted nothing more than to celebrate these students in a traditional ceremony, the data told us that this could not be done while also maintaining the health and safety of our campus and our community,” said Keenan.
He said the school decided to focus on the “most cherished” part of graduation: The walk across the stage.
Salem State is among the schools that are skipping full in-person celebrations in favor of virtual offerings and events like the socially-distanced walk across the stage, or drive-bys or having students remain in their cars.
Other schools have opted to conduct outdoor, socially-distanced programs.
At Merrimack College in North Andover, which will have an in-person celebration but with strict COVID-19 protocols in place, the planned departure from the walk across the stage became a rallying point for thousands of disappointed students and their supporters, who created an online petition last month to urge the college to reconsider.
In response, Merrimack President Christopher Hopey told them the college was reviewing the matter to figure out the logistics of pre-staging students to read their names aloud and have them walk onto the stage. Hopey promised to do everything possible to make it happen.
He said the decision would hinge on the number of students who register to attend graduation, as well as the number of positive COVID-19 cases on campus and in the state that week. Graduation for the Class of 2021 is set for May 13, and May 15 for the Class of 2020; both ceremonies will be in Duane Stadium.
Each graduate will be allowed two guests, everyone must return a health screening form ahead of the ceremonies, show up wearing a mask, and follow social distancing guidelines.
Initial plans had called for students to remain seated while their names were read aloud. Diplomas would then be mailed to home addresses, just as they were last summer for the Class of 2020.
“After a challenging year, we are looking forward to celebrating the Class of 2021, together on campus,” said Endicott College President Steven DiSalvo in a press release announcing the schedule for its graduation events.
Late last month the state put out a four-page set of guidelines for graduation ceremonies, including setting capacity limits on indoor programs similar to those in place for theater performances and for sporting events. Those limits make many schools’ typical indoor programs unworkable given the number of graduates, faculty and guests who typically attend.
Some schools, like Merrimack College and others, are also holding “makeup” graduations for the Class of 2020. And some are combining once-separate graduate and undergraduate ceremonies.
Endicott’s graduation will take place May 22 in Hempstead Stadium.
It will be unlike past ceremonies. The guest speaker, who will appear remotely, is CNN political reporter and anchor Dana Bash, who had been scheduled to give last year’s address.
Students will be allowed two guests, and the guests will be seated on the field in socially-distanced pairs of seats or in bleachers, separated by 6 feet. Masks will be required.
The ceremony will also be livestreamed — an option most other schools are also offering this year.
At Salem State University, both the classes of 2020 and 2021 will be invited to take part in a virtual ceremony on May 22. A total of six different ceremonies will be streamed that day.
There will be remarks from school officials, and the names of each graduating student, along with a photo, will be shown. Students can “personalize” their slides. A video montage of the ceremony will be available for students afterward.
There will also be a “Viking Roll Call” event on May 14 and 15 for the Class of 2020 and on May 21 and 22 for the Class of 2021, where graduating students can make an appointment to don a cap and gown, walk across the stage, receive a diploma cover and a special “Viking Strong” cord, and have a photo taken with the school’s president or provost.
North Shore Community College in Danvers will livestream a virtual ceremony on May 22. Gov. Charlie Baker is the keynote speaker, and the graduates will also hear from classmate Derek Brennan, a Danvers native who overcame PTSD after serving in combat in Iraq. Brennan will share his story of rebuilding his life and attending NSCC, where he will receive a degree in business and horticulture.
Prior to the ceremony, there will be a “drive-thru” of the campus for graduating students.
Beverly’s Montserrat College of Art will hold its graduation at the Danversport Yacht Club — in the parking lot — on May 21.
Students will be able to walk up to receive their degrees while guests will be encouraged to stay in their cars or on lawn chairs (weather permitting) to listen on a low-power FM transmission of the speeches, including keynote speaker Leslie King-Hammond, founder of the Maryland Institute College of Art Center for Race and Culture and the Studio Museum of Harlem. The program will also be livestreamed.
“We wanted our community to feel safe while offering them a full commencement ceremony with faculty, student and keynote speakers,” said spokeswoman Jo Broderick.
“We are trying to make it feel special for them and honor their time here and their accomplishments.”
A special ceremony for Class of 2020 graduates is planned for this fall, she said.
At Gordon College, two live ceremonies will be held on May 15, one commencement for members of the Class of 2020 as well as graduate students from the classes of 2020 and 2021, on the Quad, and a second ceremony for the undergraduate Class of 2021.
The guest speaker for both ceremonies is Adrian De Visser, founder of Kithu Sevana Ministries in Sri Lanka.
At Northern Essex Community College, five separate outdoor ceremonies are set for May 15 at the Haverhill campus. The smaller, socially-distanced events are intended to allow graduates to walk across the stage in cap and gown and receive a diploma cover.
Staff will disinfect between events, graduates will space 6 feet apart and can invite up to two guests. President Lane Glenn and academic deans will preside over the ceremonies and there will be several student speakers. Each ceremony will be livestreamed as well.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis. John Castelluccio contributed to this report.