COVID-19, Higher Ed

Commencement cancelled for UNC System schools as system prepares for long-term COVID-19 changes

Interim UNC System President Bill Roper.

Commencement ceremonies for all UNC System schools has been officially cancelled over concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, UNC System Interim President Bill Roper announced Friday.

“Simply put, we believe spring graduation ceremonies will be disrupted and it’s time to make alternative plans,” Roper said at the UNC Board of Governors meeting.

The system doesn’t anticipate the pandemic will disrupt the completion of the spring semester and the awarding of degrees, Roper said — just the ceremonies themselves, which can’t be held with appropriate social distancing procedures. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have emphasized that people should be no closer than 6 feet apart from one another.

“I know and understand this will disappoint our students and their families who have worked so hard toward this goal for so many years,” Roper said. “But health and safety of our students, faculty and staff must be our top priority.”

Only one board member, Bob Rucho, objected to the move. Rucho, a former state senator, said families have already made plans to attend graduation ceremonies and called cancelling them “way premature.”

Roper’s announcement followed a report to the board by Dr. David Weber, Medical Director of UNC Hospitals’ Departments of Hospital Epidemiology (Infection Prevention).

The current pandemic should peak in four to 12 weeks, Weber said, but social distancing will continue to be necessary for an additional month to six weeks. The current precautions will likely need to be in place into mid-August. It could be as long as five months before people can safely go back to eating in restaurants and attending sporting events, Weber said.

Because this will likely become an endemic coronavirus — one that infects people at a fairly predictable or stable rate — Weber said, we will likely see a second wave during respiratory infection season next year.

The UNC System has about 80,000 students living on the campuses of its 17 schools, Roper said. The university stepped up efforts to get students out of the dorms this week. By the weekend there should be only about 10 percent of the on-campus population remaining, Roper said.

Chancellors at the individual schools are trying to act with sensitivity and support students who have no other options for housing, food and Internet access that will allow them to continue their courses, Roper said. About 95 percent of courses across the university system have been converted to online-only, he said.

Roper said the UNC system is looking at the possibility of moving to a pass/fail grading system for the Spring 20/20 semester, but has not made a decision on the issue.

There are remaining questions about student refunds for housing and meal plans, as well as how the system’s priorities and day-to-day functions, Roper said. Further answers to some of those questions are expected next week, Roper said. The UNC Board of Governors tabled all of its budgetary request items to the legislature in Friday’s meeting.

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