The decision to continue holding virtual commencement exercises for the 2021 graduating class was not taken lightly. Organizing an in-person commencement ceremony takes months of planning and coordination by many departments across campus. The process for this year’s commencement began in August 2020, when we explored options for hosting an in-person ceremony at Norfolk Scope. After reviewing modified, socially-distanced arena floor diagrams, we learned that the maximum number of students that could be accommodated at 6 feet apart on the arena floor was 112. This is just one quarter of our graduating class.
Additional guidance about graduations was released March 17, 2021, from Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, and is expected to be included in an April 1 update to Third Amended Executive Order Seventy-Two. This states that in-person graduation events could be held with limits of 5,000 total attendees for outdoor events, 500 total attendees for indoor events, or 30 percent of the venue capacity for either option, whichever is less. Other restrictions on wearing masks and maintaining a minimum of a 6- to 10-foot distance in seated and staging areas, in queues and other pre-function areas also apply.
Since EVMS does not have an arena or stadium of our own, we first looked into other campus outdoor spaces such as Smith-Rogers Hall and TowneBank Lawns, which were not large enough. Next, we contacted Old Dominion University to inquire about the S.B. Ballard Stadium, but our date was unavailable. Further, we realized that if we experience inclement weather on commencement day, the festivities would have to be canceled and yet another plan would need to be developed with only one or two days’ notice.
We revisited the idea of Norfolk Scope, the largest indoor venue in Hampton Roads, and ran the numbers. Our graduating class is roughly 500 students, which would mean holding a lengthy in-person ceremony for students only, seated six feet apart in spectator seats with no faculty or guest participation. Even if we split the class into two groups, we could only allow each student to bring one guest, but faculty still could not participate. We would have to hold multiple ceremonies to accommodate our entire class and allow guests.
EVMS is a stand-alone graduate Medical and Health Professions School, and our situation is different from undergraduate universities in that our 15 graduating programs follow disparate academic schedules. When we surveyed our academic programs, we learned that many of our graduating students are no longer in the Hampton Roads area. Thus, we knew we would still need to host a virtual commencement in order for all students to participate.
The challenges were many: a lack of adequate space, varying academic schedules, students out of the immediate area, a short planning timeline, as well as staffing and resource constraints. When all options were considered individually and collectively, it was deemed prudent to continue with our virtual commencement and look for additional in-person opportunities to celebrate the Class of 2021. This decision both reflects our desire to celebrate the graduating class in meaningful ways, but also our steadfast commitment to protecting the health and safety of the entire EVMS community.
The commencement stage photo op and the social events by class/program currently being developed will allow vaccinated EVMS students the opportunity to come together with their classmates and faculty/staff to celebrate their remarkable achievements during these unprecedented times. We realize that this does not replace the experience that you are missing by participating in a traditional, in-person ceremony with your classmates, family and friends. However, we hope that you are able to take advantage of these opportunities to celebrate your accomplishments with one another.