NORTH ANDOVER – Merrimack College students and their supporters are standing up for what many consider a realistic request: To walk across a stage at next month’s graduation ceremony.
College officials this week announced plans for an in-person commencement, which like other secondary and higher education institutions will include pandemic precautions.
The college's website explains how members of the Class of 2020 and 2021 will be celebrated during two separate events at Duane Stadium. Each graduate will be allowed two guests. Everyone must return a health screening form ahead of the ceremonies, show up wearing a mask, and follow social distancing guidelines.
Initial plans call for students to remain seated while their names are read aloud. Diplomas will be mailed to home addresses, just as they were last summer for the Class of 2020.
Opposition mounted quickly with an online petition – created anonymously Wednesday on change.org – called “Merrimack College Graduation: Walking the stage.”
As of Thursday afternoon, more than 2,500 people signed it. The number continued to climb by the minute.
An email sent to graduates and their parents Thursday from President Christopher Hopey addresses concerns.
"The vast majority of our community is very happy that we are one of the few local institutions that are planning an in-person ceremony with guests," Hopey's note began.
The matter of walking across the stage "is being reviewed to figure out how we could logistically pre-stage students to read their names and have them walk onto the stage," Hopey said. "To be clear, we will do everything possible to have students walk across the stage and to read student names."
The decision will hinge on the number of students who register to attend graduation, he said, as well as the number of positive COVID-19 cases on campus and in the Commonwealth the week of graduation.
Hopey also addressed a point of frustration for some: Graduation dates that do not match what is noted in the spring handbook.
The college president said, "graduation is usually the culmination of a set of large, week-long social and celebratory events that are prohibited currently because of the pandemic," all of which has been cancelled for a second year.
"In recognizing that families will need to come to campus to help their students move out of housing and then return for commencement at a later date, we wanted to avoid having them make multiple trips to campus, which is both an inconvenience and a potential transmission risk," he said.
Comments on the petition, however, are insistent.
The unnamed petition author wrote, “The entire campus is allowed to walk the halls near each other, sit in small classrooms together, and eat together with few restrictions.”
Others added in the comment section: “It is not a graduation ceremony without walking across the stage,” and “If I were a graduating senior, I’d be happy to sanitize and wear gloves to have the opportunity to walk the stage.”
A mother in Minneapolis wrote, “I will be traveling about 1,400 miles one way (2,800 round trip) to celebrate my daughter's hard earned accomplishment. No parent comes to hear the speeches. We come to witness the joy of our kid walking across the stage. That's it.”
“There have been enough disappointments,” another wrote.
Several supporters of the petition pointed to the latest state guidelines relative to end-of-year celebrations.
Dated March 22, the guidance allows for graduates to walk across a stage individually and turn their tassel in lieu of receiving a diploma. An alternative option to minimize contact is placing each diploma or award on a table where a graduate walks by to pick it up.