The Class of 2021, no doubt, is fortunate to have an in-person Commencement ceremony this year. The decision was, by most estimations, unexpected, and in recent days peer institutions such as Bates and Williams have announced similar plans for in-person ceremonies (though Williams has indicated that no family members will be admitted to the ceremony).
However, what became equally clear following the announcement by the College last week was a deep and abiding disappointment among the recently departed members of the Class of 2020 for a ceremony of their own. What is to become of their recognition and accomplishments? What justifies keeping them away from campus for another year to mark the milestones that, for so many, are an indominable part of the Trinity spirit and a prerequisite to closing the chapter on those “care and sorrow free” undergraduate days.
Last August, no doubt, was an overly optimistic projection from those who bemoaned the decision to cancel May Commencement and petitioned for an opportunity in the late summer. The pandemic has been borne out and demonstrated that any in-person gathering of significant size and stature is certainly impossible and, even today, an appreciable risk.
Even so, the College has made the bold declaration that by this May conditions will permit an in-person gathering, divided between two ceremonies, for the Class of 2021 and two members each from their families. Why can the same not be offered for the Class of 2020, particularly when they were promised a celebration this year.
The timing seems sensible. Joe Biden asserted last week that all citizens should be eligible for the vaccine by May 1. The pace of vaccinations continues to increase, with 100 million doses delivered since January 20. Today, Ned Lamont indicated that Connecticut residents over 16 would be eligible to be vaccinated by Apr. 5. Already, as of Monday, as many as 101.1 million doses have been administered and 19.9% of the U.S. population has been vaccinated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Still, even with the mass vaccination campaign, it strikes the Tripod that, by any measure, an in-person Commencement for any class will still run a risk. Coronavirus requires but one infected person to spawn an outbreak. To assuage that concern, the College promises safety measures of masks, distancing, and testing.
In her letter to the Class of 2020, however, President of the College Joanne Berger-Sweeney had a solitary “prime reason” that a ceremony for last year’s class cannot occur is because “current students continue to participate in comprehensive, on-campus testing and safety protocols leading up to and through Commencement.”
But are the two guests per student in the Class of 2021 participating in comprehensive, on-campus testing? The reality is that as many as 1,200 parents or other family members could arrive to celebrate the Class of 2021 this May and they, as much as any member of the Class of 2020, will have spent the preceding weeks free from the “comprehensive, on-campus” testing regimen that is presented as the scion of safety.
If 1,200 parents from across the country are deemed sufficiently safe to attend with the presentation of a negative PCR test, what bars a ceremony for the Class of 2020? The addition of 600 members of the Class of 2020 also submitting their negative PCR tests to remain in compliance hardly seems to increase the risk sufficiently to merit cancelling their ceremonies for another year. In both events, the numbers would be similar: close to 2,000 students and parents would be on Trinity’s campus in May. That is a risk, but a risk the College feels is worth taking for one class but not two.
Several enterprising members of the Class of 2020 have gone further in their pursuit of ensuring safety, according to a recent petition which has circulated, and have attained a commitment from BioReference Laboratories to offer free on-campus COVID-19 testing for all participants. On that basis alone, any cost prohibitions to the College could be reduced by some measure, and an additional opportunity for safety from the virus has manifested itself.
Indeed, there is no shame whatsoever in proceeding with caution on the question of Commencement, but that caution should be well-placed: if it is safe for parents from all corners of the nation to return to campus for the ceremony of the Class of ’21, a few extra students returning from outside the auspices of Trinity’s comprehensive system for the Class of ’20 hardly seems to augment the risk levels so significantly as to bar an event.
The College ought to consider being more frank about what it is doing to plan commemorations for these young graduates. They, too, are among the ranks of alums who have trod in the same coop as we, investing countless hours in pursuit of their coveted degrees. They deserve some recognition and, if it is possible to orchestrate that recognition this year, then by God with all our zeal and effort we ought to do it.
At the very least, a date certain should be set for the ceremony, not an ambiguous smattering of summers in the forthcoming years. A conciliatory message from the President that affixes no future date for a ceremony (or proposes a celebration during the Bicentennial in another two years) hardly seems acceptable consolation. To many, it smacks of an insult. Those students deserve better. Trinity deserves better.
–The Trinity Tripod