The iconic cap-and-gown college graduations this spring could be problematic. Will they take place?

Graduation ceremony. Credit: ShareAlike Commons

American lives are changing as the coronavirus rises to a pandemic crisis worldwide, causing empty airplanes, cancelled cruise ship trips and stock market volatility.

Now comes higher education, where vast campuses, big dorms, college sporting events and iconic cap-and-gown commencement exercises can become targets of the coronavirus.

The new virus has caused a respiratory disease that can be fatal and has expanded globally and domestically, including in Florida.

On a national level, one university in Washington – where a high number of coronavirus deaths have occurred – already canceled its March 21 winter commencement, according to the Seattle Times. And Washington’s governor has ordered a ban on gatherings of more than 250 or more people in the Seattle area, the newspaper said.

That raises questions about the spring college commencements, usually large-scale events with relatives and friends filling up big auditoriums as college grads walk to get their diplomas.

In Florida, universities have already been directed to shift to off-campus online classes to keep students away from coronavirus infections. And administrators have begun discussions about what do about the upcoming graduations this spring.

Marshall Ogletree, executive director of the United Faculty of Florida, thinks the decision to postpone or suspend graduation “should be left to the institutions.”

“That’s a tough issue. Eventually graduation will occur but will it occur in their normal cycle?” Ogletree said in a phone call with the Florida Phoenix.

“We’ve been trying to give guidance to university leaders,” Ogletree added. “I think we’re all in uncharted territory.”

Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland is having conversations about how the coronavirus pandemic could affect graduation, said Lydia Guzman, assistant director of communications.

“It’s in discussion, but right now we have not canceled or suspended graduation,” Guzman said in a phone call with the Florida Phoenix Wednesday. “We’re meeting with our emergency management team. Every scenario is being discussed.”

At the private University of Miami, campus events or meetings with 50 or more people have been canceled, according to an alert sent out to the campus community on Wednesday. The suspension begins March 15 and runs until March 31.

However, the college said in the alert that “at this time, commencement (graduation) activities to be held May 7, 8, and 9, will proceed as scheduled. Any changes to that schedule will be announced by April 15.”

The commencement would be difficult if the university continues to restrict events with 50 or more people. Graduation ceremonies usually have hundreds to thousands of participants.

At Florida State University in Tallahassee, students will move to online classes starting on March 23, after spring break. It’s unclear at this time if the school plans to cancel or postpone spring graduation.

The University of Central Florida in Orlando also would be among the public universities shifting to online classes.

Rachel Williams, of UCF communications, said in a written statement Tuesday to the Phoenix that the university “has not yet been heavily affected by the coronavirus, and we do not know whether conditions will rise to a level that requires UCF to implement a significant response.”

Most Florida colleges have also adopted a webpage dedicated to coronavirus updates, with guidance for students, staff and faculty. International trips and study abroad programs during spring break have also been cancelled at most institutions.