This past week, Harvard and Columbia announced their commencement plans, leaving Penn as one of two Ivies yet to announce its intentions regarding commencement. With the other Ivies split on whether or not an in-person ceremony is possible, it is not clear how Penn will weigh in on the issue. Although the University can be expected to make an announcement in the coming days and weeks, the Daily Pennsylvanian’s Editorial Board believes Penn should hold an in-person ceremony, provided the University meets the conditions necessary to hold such a ceremony responsibly.
All students in attendance must be vaccinated.
At last week’s Board of Trustees Meeting, Wendell Pritchett said that there would be a “50-50 chance” that Penn would be able to launch a student vaccination campaign by May. The only way for an in-person graduation to be completely safe is for all attendees, especially students, to be vaccinated against the virus. Fortunately, with daily vaccinations reaching 1.7 million doses per day in the United States and accelerating, it is not unreasonable to believe that vaccines will soon be injected into the arms of college students. The recent approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, as well as President Biden's promise to have enough vaccines for all adults by the end of May, are reasons for even more hope in this regard. If the state of Pennsylvania opens vaccine distribution to college students and Penn is able to secure a supply of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, graduating students could walk across the commencement stage without fear of contracting the virus. All else being equal, the University should prioritize seniors over other undergraduates in their vaccination campaign, to ensure that seniors can participate in an in-person graduation ceremony risk-free.
Even if all students are vaccinated, all usual mitigation restrictions must apply: commencement and related celebrations should be conducted outside, distanced, and masked.
Even if Penn is able to vaccinate all of its graduating students, commencement celebrations should adhere to all CDC guidelines concerning events and outdoor gatherings: students, speakers, and administrators should be masked and spaced at least six feet apart at all times. This would likely mean holding multiple staggered celebrations throughout the commencement day, perhaps for each school. Although COVID-19 vaccines have up to a 95% effectiveness rate, there are still a considerable amount of unknowns; vaccinated students could possibly be infectious to unvaccinated family members and peers, for example.
Only students and officiating administrators should be in attendance.
While Franklin Field is an immense stadium with a capacity of over 50,000, only students, commencement speakers, and officiators should be attending commencement in-person. The risk of families traveling across the United States and subsequently fueling new outbreaks in the Philadelphia community is far too high. Even local parents should not be allowed to watch the festivities in order to reduce crowding as much as possible. Instead, parents, relatives, and friends can watch the graduates receive their diplomas via live stream. This way, the graduates can walk across the stage without putting their loved ones at risk. Parents and loved ones would still get the satisfaction of seeing their graduate cross the stage without risking their health or the health of those around them.
Positivity rates must be below 5% for at least two weeks before Commencement.
The “percent positive” measures how many COVID-19 tests return with a positive result. The World Health Organization recommended last spring that at or above 5%, non-essential activities should remain shut down. At or above 5%, the virus is prevalent enough in a community that large gatherings virtually guarantee an outbreak of new cases. While the in-person attendants would theoretically be vaccinated at this event anyway, there is as of yet no conclusive evidence demonstrating that vaccines prevent the vaccinated from spreading the virus to the unvaccinated. As such, the community positivity rate must still be a factor in Penn’s decision.
The university must be actively vaccinating the West Philadelphia community.
The University already put its West Philadelphia neighbors in great peril by deciding to reopen campus this past spring without consulting them. Given Penn’s historically fraught relationship with West Philadelphia, the University has a moral obligation to provide West Philadelphians with free vaccination clinics before it plans any potentially risky large-scale gatherings. Penn Medicine's vaccination efforts are a good start; however, the University must ensure that the current rate of vaccinations only increases from its current level, even if it means opening new vaccination facilities for those in West Philly.
While the above conditions would minimize risk, they would not completely eliminate it. Commencement is an incredible ceremony celebrating the hard-won achievements of Penn students. The Class of 2021 should absolutely experience such a ceremony in person, but not at the cost of West Philadelphian lives.
Editorials represent the majority view of members of The Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. Editorial Board, which meets regularly to discuss issues relevant to Penn's campus. Participants in these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on related topics.