On March 6th, the University of Washington became the first American university to suspend in-person courses and switch to a distance-learning campus amid COVID-19 fears. At the time, Washington was one of the hardest-hit states in the nation; the virus had already claimed 15 lives in the region and was spreading rapidly through nursing homes and communities. In many other cities across the nation yet to be affected by the virus, Americans continued to go to school and work as normal.
But by March 13th, the COVID-19 crisis had shifted to an entirely new phase. Nearly 2,000 Americans were infected and the federal government was just beginning to ramp-up testing. In response, more than 300 universities closed their campuses, in some cases giving students as little as 48 hours to pack up and vacate the premises. In the span of just a few weeks, the idea of holding in-person courses became so unthinkable, Liberty University literally made national headlines for resuming classes on campus upon the conclusion of Spring Break.
During this unprecedented moment in the history of Higher Education, and in an age where gatherings of 10 or more people are banned, millions of displaced students are wondering how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact graduation. For the first time ever, Higher Education will reluctantly enter new and untouched territory: Nationally, the Class of 2020 will graduate, but without a traditional graduation ceremony.
Some universities like the University of Pennsylvania, have cancelled ceremonies altogether. Others, including Nashville’s own Fisk University, are working to schedule graduations for the end of the year in December, in hopes that the pandemic will have slowed by that time. Still, other schools such as Northeastern University have considered holding virtual ceremonies to recognize student achievements.
Beyond graduation concerns, college students are currently facing a slew of unexpected challenges. Countless Seniors were prematurely ripped away from the final weeks of their college lives. Others struggled to cope with the financial burden associated with returning home on short notice, while some students may not have had a home to go back to at all. University presidents are already anticipating a dramatic decrease in enrollment in the event that the Fall 2020 semester should begin with remote classes amid a continuing health crisis. Much like the global economy, Higher Education may never be the same. In the future we must be more prepared–not only for the next pandemic, but also for the aftermath it may bring.