UCCS graduation

Students will experience an in-person element to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs hybrid commencement ceremony this year: Picture on the Plaza. It will be the first in-person graduation event since 2019, as pictured in this Gazette file photo. 

As plans are taking shape for a new twist on spring commencement ceremonies for 1,600 graduates, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs received final approval this week to become a distribution point for COVID vaccines for employees and students.

Officials sought consent from the state to be one of 21 such sites in El Paso County, with an eye on the coming academic year.

“The hope is that by fall we’ll have built herd immunity, and we can allow for more normal classroom capacity,” said Stephanie Hanenberg, assistant vice chancellor for health and wellness.

Frontline UCCS workers in dining halls, the recreation center, facilities and advising departments will be eligible first to receive the vaccine on campus during the last week of March and beginning of April, she said.

“This will allow more faculty and staff to return to campus,” she said.

Senior students from the school’s Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Beth-El College of Nursing and Health Sciences will administer the shots. It is unknown which of the three available vaccines will be distributed, Handenberg said.

The plan is to inoculate 1,000 people during a four-hour distribution cycle, with up to 3,000 people vaccinated before the spring semester ends, Hanenber said. The effort will take up to 100 volunteers, some whom participated in a dry run last month, enacting what the process might entail.

Students won’t be eligible until the second phase of Colorado’s vaccination schedule, unless they work for the university in a frontline job, Hanenberg said.

Employees are not required to get the vaccine, she said. As a public university, such a policy would come from state offices, Hanenberg said, and there is currently no mandate to do so.

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The type of instruction in the fall has not yet been decided, said campus spokesman Mark Belcher.

About 55% of this semester’s 3,230 courses are offered online, and 28% are being held in-person in classrooms, he said.

The remaining 17% of classes are a mixture of online and in-person instruction.

UCCS has about 830 students living on campus in dorms this semester, compared with 1,300 students last spring — before the school moved to remote-only learning, Belcher said.

Officials also have decided that graduation will be a hybrid format, with both a formal virtual ceremony on May 14, with speakers and videos of graduates, and an in-person celebration on May 17 on campus, dubbed “Picture on the Plaza.”

Students will be able to do a few things that normally happen at a live ceremony, including receiving their diploma jacket covers and having their photos taken with college deans, said Andrea Cordova, chief of staff and organizer of the commencement ceremonies.

They’ll also process across campus, be cheered on by faculty and staff, hear their names called over a loudspeaker and ”feel like they have finally completed their degrees,” Cordova said in a statement.

The formal virtual graduation and the livestreamed event will be available on UCCS' website, commencement.uccs.edu.

“Certainly, we lose the traditional processional, with 'Pomp and Circumstance' playing in the background,” Cordova said. “We lose the entire class being able to do their tassel turn together, and we won't have the energy of everybody together under one roof.”

But, she added, “we gain a chance to bring closure to students’ studies by having their last graduate moments on campus.”

The outdoor event will be staggered throughout the morning on May 17 and will follow social distancing protocols. Family and friends won’t be able to attend.

In some ways, students in the class of 2021 are pioneers in how the campus delivers online education, said Chancellor Venkat Reddy.

“While they didn't get a choice in the COVID-19 pandemic, they found a way to overcome,“ he said in a statement. “I am so in awe of these graduates’ perseverance and their ability to pivot, even though it wasn't an ideal way to spend this past year.”

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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