Spring break and virtual commencement spark frustrations among majority of students, Chancellor and provost defend decisions

Cambrea Schrank 

[email protected] 

*Interviews conducted by Cambrea Schrank and Joy Webb. Interview questions prepared by Editorial Board 

     UCCS’ decision to have a split spring break and hybrid commencement ceremony this semester have fired up student frustrations, prompting many to question the administration’s decision-making process and the factoring of student input in such considerations.  

     The Scribe asked our Instagram followers, “Are you frustrated that the 2021 spring graduation will be a virtual event?” 66% of followers said yes. We also asked, “Do you think two smaller spring breaks were better than one for COVID-19?” 77% of followers said they felt it was worse. 

Split Spring Break  

     The spring break was split into two smaller breaks, the first from Feb. 17-19 and the second from March 22-23. 

     Regarding the spring break decision, Provost Tom Christensen said, “In all of these cases, obviously, none of this is anything we wanted to do. If it weren’t for the pandemic, we never would have even considered this.” 

     According to Christensen, the decision was made to avoid the potential spread of COVID-19 through traveling students, faculty and staff members. Christensen explained that the administration predicted students would not be fully vaccinated by March. 

     “The idea of canceling spring break, we felt, was just a mental health disaster. We just could not do that. We were hoping that by having this split break, we would be both addressing the physical health concerns and the mental health concerns,” Christensen said. 

     According to Christensen, the administration explored many different options for spring break. At one point, they considered giving one day off a week, scattered throughout the semester, but they came to the consensus that this was a worse option after talking to several sources.  

     Chancellor Venkat Reddy confirmed that student voices were considered in the spring break decision.  

     “As with any major decision on the UCCS campus, we gathered input through our shared governance model – including the SGA President and Vice President – and through a variety of meetings that included faculty, staff and students. Options were then discussed with our campus health care experts and our partners at the El Paso County Health Department,” Reddy said via email. 

     SGA President Aidan Meadows and Vice President Rachel Cauwels confirmed that they “are the two SGA members primarily involved in university decisions.” 

     “Our monthly meetings with Chancellor Reddy often include him running a few ideas by us,” they said. 

     One student concern was work still being assigned during the spring break “off” days. Christensen said he was quick in addressing the issue.  

     “We started to hear things about faculty who were not following the spring break schedule,” Christensen said. “I had sent out an initial statement to all the faculty, I followed up with a second announcement, and then when I started hearing some of these things, I sent out a more specific, targeted message to all faculty saying, ‘Work may not be assigned during those five days of spring break. Those are break.’” 

Hybrid Commencement  

     On Feb. 25, Reddy announced that UCCS’ spring commencement would take place in two formats: First, a virtual commencement ceremony will be held on Friday, May 14 at 1:00 p.m. Second, for all graduates who would like to attend in-person, the university will have a “Picture on the Plaza” celebration the following week. 

     According to Reddy, approximately 1,100 spring graduates participate in the May commencement ceremony each year, and at the last in-person commencement ceremony, more than 6,000 family members and loved ones attended in support of graduates. Even with guest limitations, there is not an indoor facility in Colorado Springs that could host that many attendees under the circumstances.  

     Christensen said that the administration felt comfortable doing a virtual commencement ceremony again after the previous semester’s the experience, but that this semester they really wanted to do more for the graduates.  

     “We wanted to have some opportunity for students to have an experience that was in-person. That is what led us to that hybrid idea. There was no place that we could gather people together and do the kind of official parts of the ceremony: the speeches, the official granting of degrees. So, that said, we were still going to have to do that virtually,” Christensen said.  

     “We were looking at what some of the other campuses were doing, and sometimes it was a drive-through and sometimes it was a walk-through, and that’s where we came up the idea of, well, what if we use the mountain lion statue in front of the library as a location where people could get a photograph taken?” Christensen added.  

     According to Meadows and Cauwels, “The idea for the in person photo op came from our director of finance and graduating senior, Stephanie Moyer.” 

     Reddy said that the “Picture on the Plaza” event is structured specifically to minimize risk to all participants, and that their health experts have agreed that gathering a limited number of individuals at one time, in a staggered format and in a large outdoor space, while following social distancing protocols, is appropriate.  

     Reddy also assured the Scribe that graduating students were involved in the discussions around the creation of the Spring 2020 virtual ceremony.  

     “We also collected graduates’ thoughts via survey, which has allowed us to make improvements for the spring 2021 ceremony. A major piece of feedback that we received from the Student Government Association was that graduates need more lead time on the commencement planning in order to make their own decisions for travel, which affected the timing of our decision-making,” Reddy said. 

     Regarding the involvement of student feedback, Cauwels said, “This year, breakout rooms in class have been a great resource for these conversations.” 

     “I live on campus as an RA and get many of my student inputs from the students I am interacting with everyday. My fellow friends and co-workers are also a great resource as I use them to gauge student opinions from different groups across campus,” Meadows said. 

     According to Reddy, safety was prioritized over finances in these decisions. 

     “You can see an example of this mentality in our decision to continue paying student workers for the duration of the spring 2020 semester, even if they were unable to complete work for their jobs remotely,” he said.  

     The cost difference between a virtual and in-person commencement ceremony is not immense, but present, nonetheless. According to Reddy, “It is difficult to provide the exact cost difference between a virtual and in-person graduation ceremony, as some costs went down while others went up, and some new costs were created by our virtual ceremonies.  

     Allow me to share a few examples of expenses and cost savings from the past several commencement ceremonies:  

As a cost savings, we did not have to pay for use of the Broadmoor World Arena for the spring or winter 2020 commencement ceremonies.  

Instead, we sent mailers to all of our graduates at a cost of $34,000. This includes the cost of goods, postage, copying and student employee labor to pack the mailers, which included a letter from myself; a cap, tassel and souvenir tassel in order to take part in the traditional tassel turn; a diploma jacket; Latin honor cords; and two printed programs. In addition, for the December 2020 virtual ceremony, we added a UCCS Class of 2020 face covering.  

In comparison, for the in-person spring 2019 commencement ceremony, we spent $11,640 on printed programs for all graduates plus their guests. For the virtual spring 2020 ceremony, we spent $7,162, as we purchased enough copies to send two programs to each graduate – which was not only a cost savings, but a significant environmental savings due to the reduction in paper printing and avoided waste of the programs that are thrown away at the Broadmoor World Arena each ceremony.” 

     Comparatively, Pikes Peak Community College (PPCC) will include both a drive-in grad walk and a virtual commencement ceremony, which, according to Reddy is “very similar to our plan of hosting a virtual commencement ceremony and a walk-up event.” 

     Aside from PPCC, other schools throughout the state are handling commencement in differing ways, including some schools, like University of Northern Colorado, who will be hosting commencement in person. But all CU schools will be virtual this May.  

     “We always knew that both semesters’ commencements would be virtual. It just isn’t possible to have an in person ceremony safely,” Meadows and Cauwels said. 

     Christensen and Reddy both sided with students’ frustrations with these decisions.  

     “I agree with the students who responded to your survey. I too am frustrated that we are not able to celebrate commencement together and that we are not able to enjoy a full week of spring break this year. I hope that we are never again put in a situation like this in the future,” Reddy said.  

     “That being said, anyone who has lost a loved one to COVID-19 or who has personally been impacted by this disease would agree that the sacrifice we make by maintaining our safety guidelines for a few more months is worth the effort,” Reddy said. “I ask that as a campus community, we continue to wear our masks, watch our distance and get our vaccines when the opportunity to do so becomes available. I am optimistic that the vaccine rollout will be successful over the next few months and we can return to a fuller campus experience in the fall.  

     “Finally, we have not forgotten the Classes of 2020, who were not able to participate in an in-person celebration, in our planning for future commencement ceremonies. I will be overjoyed to see these graduates celebrated in person as public health guidance allows.” 

     Christensen echoed these sentiments: “I’m frustrated that we have to do these things, but there’s also no choice, especially on the commencement. We did our best. We were trying to balance everything come up with a solution that none of us really like. As soon as we’re able to get past this, the restrictions that are on us, we will go back to having a normal spring break and a normal in-person commencement where we can gather and celebrate.” 

Stock photo courtesy of Unsplash.com