Delaware universities grappling with graduation decisions

This story has been updated.

DOVER — In the wake of COVID-19, higher education institutions throughout the state are seeing significant changes to day-to-day education and their biggest event of the year: graduation.

Under Gov. John Carney’s order this week that Delawareans stay at home until May 15, or when he declares the public health crisis has subsided, schools have re-evaluated their commencement plans.

Delaware State University, Wesley College and Wilmington University have announced changes to those ceremonies. The University of Delaware and Delaware Technical Community College have not yet announced decisions regarding commencement. Goldey-Beacom College announced that its May 1 commencement would be postponed.

In a WebEx forum with students, faculty and staff, DSU President Tony Allen said the school will offer a virtual graduation in May, and an in-person ceremony in the fall.

That ceremony will not be combined with their December ceremony and will be entirely focused on the graduates of spring 2020, said LaKresha Moultrie, interim general counsel and chief risk manager at the university.

“All seniors scheduled to graduate this spring will receive all the necessary support to complete their coursework,” she said. “We are working closely with our students and faculty to ensure that there’s maximum flexibility to assist our students who are experiencing difficulties and to provide them with the assistance that’s necessary to be successful.”

She added that students struggling with device or connectivity issues will not be penalized academically.

“We will work with each student as long as necessary to make sure that is in fact happening,” she said.

Diplomas will be mailed to graduating seniors, she added.

Wesley President Bob Clark said the May commencement ceremony, and all other related events and activities, have been canceled.

“However, degrees will still be conferred for those students who successfully complete all degree requirements,” he said in a letter to campus. “We are exploring an alternative/virtual commencement ceremony, as well as a possible fall ceremony, and will provide updates once that information is available.”

In a letter to its community, Wilmington University President LaVerne Harmon said graduation was postponed.

“We know how disappointing this must be, and we are also saddened that we can’t celebrate with you in person. But while commencement is a wonderful experience, it is not the only measure of success,” President Harmon wrote. “Your academic achievement is the most accurate indicator of achievement. You have earned your degree despite overwhelming circumstances, and we could not be prouder of your accomplishments. We applaud your dedication and perseverance.”

She added that the university will consider a new commencement date if restrictions are lifted and it is safe to hold one. Diplomas will be mailed in the early summer.

On its website, UD noted that it has not yet made any decisions about commencement.

“There are still many unknowns in the coronavirus situation, and university leaders are working carefully through the decision process,” a message said. “Everyone is aware that it is an important event to students and their families and the entire UD community. The university will communicate updated information as soon as it is available.”

Christine Gillan, a spokeswoman for Delaware Tech, said the college has not yet announced its decision about commencement. The original date is scheduled prior to when Gov. Carney’s stay-at-home order would lift, however.

“Right now we’re just hyper-focused on helping our students get through all this online and be successful and finish out their spring semester,” she said.

Regardless of graduation ceremonies, the higher education institutions in the state have mostly shifted to remote and online learning for their student populations.

Many have limited access to campus, but some students do remain on campus at DSU and Wesley.

In his letter, President Clark said the approximately 30 students remaining there are being asked to stay mostly in their rooms or on campus and are instructed to refrain from visiting others’ rooms or gathering in other areas on campus.

At DSU, about 200 students are staying on campus. Dr. Allen said the students are being asked to practice social distancing as well.

Both colleges are providing meals. DSU is also offering items from its food pantry, Dr. Allen said.

In a message posted Sunday, DelTech officials said the campus was “limiting access to our buildings and facilities to essential employees identified by the college to support distance learning. Faculty and staff will utilize telecommuting to continue to teach and provide support services in order to give our students the ability to finish the spring semester.”

Wesley President Clark likewise posted a letter that campus was closed and that “non-essential personnel will be required to work from home and telecommute commencing” Tuesday.

DSU’s Dr. Moultrie added that, per the governor’s order on Sunday, the university had to limit the amount of staff on campus.

“We are allowed to operate to facilitate distance learning or perform other essential functions, if operating under the rules for social distancing,” she said. “The university’s leadership team has already taken steps to drastically reduce the number of employees who actually report to work on a daily basis. We’ve actually reduced that number by two thirds. In response to the governor’s order, we are required to further reduce our reporting staff and already began the process of doing so.”

DSU’s Dr. Allen said that the university is about 95% remote.

Campus law enforcement and a somewhat reduced facilities staff are essential personnel, he said.

All faculty and staff are being paid at DSU. Dr. Allen said the school is also paying student workers who can work virtually.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Wilmington University canceled its graduation ceremony. The ceremony is being postponed, and the story has been updated to reflect that. We regret this error.

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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