Utah’s 8 public colleges cancel or postpone their graduation ceremonies due to coronavirus

( Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo ) Graduates at the University of Utah's commencement ceremony, in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 2, 2019.

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Graduation ceremonies have been canceled or postponed at all of Utah’s public colleges and universities as the coronavirus pandemic worsens and restrictions on large gatherings tighten even more in response.

The latest announcement Wednesday came from the Utah System of Higher Education, which governs the eight institutions here. Already, each of the schools have closed their campuses across the state and moved classes online for the semester to avoid spreading the illness.

Delaying spring commencement celebrations in addition to those measures, said Melanie Heath, spokeswoman for USHE, was a hard but necessary decision.

“It’s gut-wrenching,” she added. “But it’s something that we feel is responsible to do.”

One of the eight colleges — Utah State University in Logan — has decided to cancel all graduation and convocation plans on its campus. The other seven public institutions will postpone, for now. But it’s unclear when those events will be rescheduled.

Previously, the biggest private school in the state, Brigham Young University, also canceled its ceremony for this spring. And Westminster College in Salt Lake City has delayed its ceremony.

The precautions come after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked citizens across the country to avoid groups of more than 10 people for the next eight weeks. That timeline pushes right up against when the college graduations in Utah were set — with most in early May.

Even though USU will cancel its ceremony — which was to be the 133rd there — the school noted Wednesday that it still hopes to honor its graduates in some way apart from the previously planned April 30 event. How that will happen has yet to be decided.

“We are disappointed we won’t be celebrating our students’ accomplishments at this time, but we are committed to doing everything possible to protect our community,” said USU President Noelle Cockett.

Never before have graduation events been canceled statewide and rarely — if ever — at an individual college. “Maybe during the big flood in the 1980s,” Heath added, “but that’s all I can think of.”

It’s not clear exactly how many Utah students were set to graduate this spring, but with nearly 190,000 enrolled overall in the eight public colleges, thousands had anticipated getting their diplomas on stage.

Seniors statewide, from Southern Utah University in Cedar City to Utah Valley University in Orem to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, are disappointed at the change of plans. One student at USU said on Twitter that she cried when she heard her graduation was canceled. Another at Weber State University said it was, “heartbreaking but understandable.”

More students, from Dixie State, Snow College and Salt Lake Community College, said the same.

Sheva Mozafari, a senior at the U. and the student regent on USHE’s governing board, noted she understands the decision but is sad that there will be “no real end to my college experience.”

“I am obviously so, so bummed,” she said.

Mozafari made her own major and will graduate in integrated health science with honors. She’s also one of the first women in her family to get a degree. Both she and her family were looking forward to her walking across the stage in celebration.

She’s glad the U. is postponing and not canceling its ceremony. She’s talked with the administration there and suggested potentially moving it to the summer or combining it with the fall 2020 graduation in December. “It’s absolutely dependent,” she added, “on the pandemic.”

As of Wednesday, there were 63 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Utah, including 10 visitors and one University of Utah graduate student, who has not been named. Health officials and the state’s governor are encouraging social distancing as the only way to slow the spread.

Heath added that was the main force behind the graduation decision.

“We are of course heartbroken for students and their families who look forward to this day for four years or more,” she said. "But we also know that the safety of our campuses is paramount. These are unprecedented times. And we’re trying to do the best we can.”

SUU was the first to announce the decision, noting on Twitter that the school’s administrators are “deeply sorry.” The university had announced last month that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would be its commencement speaker. Now, it says, it will try to reschedule that.

SUU President Scott Wyatt added, too, that he understands the frustration; his wife, Kathy, and daughter, Naomi, are graduating this spring and wanted to get their diplomas together.

The U.’s President Ruth Watkins added in her own letter: “While the ceremony that culminates graduates’ hard work and dedication will be different this year, we want you to know that your accomplishments are no less impressive.”