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Outdoor graduations in Virginia can have up to 5,000 people attend this spring, Northam announces

Outdoor graduations in Virginia can have up to 5,000 people attend this spring, Northam announces

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Tyrone L. Frye Jr. (right), a business economics major from Northern Virginia, gathered with others for VCU’s graduation in May 2019 at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. 2021 indoor graduation ceremonies will be able to have 500 people, or 30% of the venue’s capacity, whichever is less.

K-12 schools and colleges in Virginia can host outdoor graduation ceremonies this spring with as many as 5,000 attendees, Gov. Ralph Northam announced Wednesday, the latest decision to gradually loosen restrictions as COVID-19 cases decline.

The state will limit graduation capacity at outdoor ceremonies to 5,000 people or 30% of the venue’s capacity, whichever is less. It will cap indoor ceremonies to 500 people or 30% of the venue’s capacity, whichever is less. The guidelines require all attendees to wear masks and distance themselves.

“While graduation and commencement ceremonies will still be different than they were in the past, this is a tremendous step forward for all of our schools, our graduates and their families,” Northam said in a statement.

Seniors celebrate earning their diplomas by crossing the finish line on the track at Richmond Raceway in Richmond, Va., during the Mills E. Godwin High School Graduation Victory Lap Wednesday, June 10, 2020. Video by Alexa Welch Edlund/Times-Dispatch

School districts and colleges across the state are still deciding when and where to honor their 2021 graduates.

Henrico County will host outdoor, in-person events, the school district announced Wednesday. Locations, dates and other details haven’t been determined. Henrico previously held graduation at the Virginia Commonwealth University Siegel Center.

Chesterfield County is considering holding graduation on its high schools’ football fields. It has not determined dates or times. In the past, Chesterfield has held ceremonies at the Siegel Center or Virginia State University. That’s not feasible this year, the district said.

Richmond Public Schools is planning a virtual commencement ceremony and an opportunity for students to pick up their diplomas in person.

Hanover County has not made a decision yet.

The University of Richmond expects to make a decision around April 1, a spokesperson said. A spokesperson for Virginia Commonwealth University did not immediately respond to a request for an update.

Northam: For students, school is "where they need to be."

At the University of Virginia, two proposals have been laid out: holding an in-person graduation this spring with no guests or postponing graduation until guests can attend.

“I know this is not the way you expected to end your time at UVA, nor is it the way you would like to celebrate your accomplishments,” UVA President Jim Ryan said in a statement to students.

Virginia Tech intends to hold multiple in-person ceremonies with a limited number of guests. It will also host an online ceremony. More than 8,000 students are expected to graduate from Virginia Tech this spring.

James Madison University will have separate in-person ceremonies for its various colleges and a virtual universitywide event. Events will be held from May 6 to 9. Graduates can bring up to four guests, and all ceremonies will be streamed online.

Universities are still planning to hold ceremonies for spring and fall 2020 graduates, too. UVA initially planned to celebrate 2020 graduates in May of this year. Instead, it plans to honor them in the summer of 2022.

While the number of coronavirus cases in Virginia has declined since January, the decline has slowed in recent weeks. The state’s positivity rate stands at 5.4%.

More than 1.8 million Virginians, about 21% of the population, have received at least one COVID vaccine shot. Two-thirds of Virginia teachers and school staff have received a vaccine.

The state is administering 50,000 shots per day and expects to inoculate everyone who wants a shot by the end of May.

Northam last month asked school districts to expand opportunities for regular in-person instruction. All 132 districts have submitted a plan to meet that goal, the governor said.

Every public college in Virginia is conducting some in-person classes this semester, but many classes are taught online.

“Given the rapid progress we are making with vaccinating teachers and staff, and what we now know about how schools can operate safely with proper mitigation measures, I believe in-person instruction will be the norm in every Virginia school division this fall,” said James Lane, superintendent of public instruction.

Staff writers Jess Nocera and Kenya Hunter contributed to this report.


Eric Kolenich writes about higher education, sports, coronavirus and protests for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He joined the newspaper in 2009 after graduating from the University of Virginia with a degree in English. (804) 649-6109

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