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‘Hopeful gamble’: AU officials plan for in-person graduation in December

Published: Oct. 16, 2020 at 4:29 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - In just the first day of announcing an in-person ceremony, Augusta University says about 300 students have already RSVPed for an in-person graduation ceremony.

The university says they’re even going to extend the invitations to spring graduates who didn’t have an in-person ceremony.

While the university says they’re confident in their ability to do commencement safely the numbers now are even worse than they were back in the spring.

No matter what universities decide about graduation, students know there’s pros and cons.

“Personally I feel like it should still be online for everyone’s safety,” one student said.

“I actually like the idea of it just because you’re going back to some sense of normalcy,” another student said.

AU interim provost Dr. Zach Kelehear says they’re taking the risk. They’ll do multiple ceremonies, enforce social distancing, limit tickets, and require masks.

“We’re going into this with a very keen idea about being careful, being intentional, and being safe,” Kelehear said.

Back in May, the university decided to hold spring graduation virtually. But now, the numbers are worse.

On the day of AU’s spring virtual ceremony, the 7-day average of percent positives in Richmond County were just about 3 percent.

Now, DPH reports that the number has doubled.

“Everyone’s jumping around in festivity, and you’re passing it around,” student Malik Campbell said, “The next thing you know, the following week, you’re wondering why you’re sick.”

But the university says there’s more that goes into the decision to hold graduation than just numbers.

“What we know now and what we knew in May is I would say, radically different,” Kelehear said.

“Because of the way the faculty and students have performed this fall, we’ve grown in confidence that they can also arrive at our ceremony and be safe.”

Kelehear is calling the plan a “hopeful gamble.”

“It won’t be a normal ceremony, but it will be as nearly normal as we can imagine it,” Kelehear said.

But he says when it comes to safety, the university won’t take risks.

Kelehear tells me this decision is not set in stone. He says if the pandemic worsens to a point where holding an in-person ceremony is no longer safe, they’ll re-evaluate.

Meanwhile, last week USC-Aiken announced they’ll also hold fall graduation in person. But unlike Richmond County, their percent positive averages are lower now than they were back in the spring.

DHEC reports back on Aug. 15 when the university had their spring commencement, percent positives in Aiken County were around 20 percent. Now the 7-day average is sitting around 11 percent.

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