FAYETTEVILLE -- Fall graduates at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville and those who missed out on spring commencement have been invited to attend a series of December graduation ceremonies, the university announced Tuesday.
The state's largest university is holding events over three days, putting limits on guests and stating that "all attendees -- including students, guests, staff and faculty -- will have to wear a mask," spokesman John Post said in an email, among other changes to commencement because of the ongoing pandemic.
While UA is far from alone in opting for an in-person fall commencement, some colleges elsewhere in the state and region have announced virtual events or the postponement of ceremonies until the spring. Other large universities, including the University of Central Arkansas, have yet to announce fall commencement plans as case numbers rise in Arkansas and nearby states.
Within the past 10 days, hospitalizations from covid-19 have hit record highs in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.
But while the University of Oklahoma and the University of Missouri have announced they will not hold in-person fall commencement ceremonies, UA plans to host on-campus events Dec. 17-19 at Bud Walton Arena and Barnhill Arena.
"It has been a challenging year for all of us, so I'm really looking forward to fall commencement and the opportunity to recognize our graduates who all worked hard to make it to the finish line," UA Chancellor Joe Steinmetz said in a statement. "While seating will be limited, I couldn't be happier that our plans include family and guests as a part of this important milestone event."
Unlike in past UA commencement ceremonies, tickets will be required to attend. Students will be limited to six guest tickets each, though UA's website states that "unclaimed tickets may be available for families needing additional tickets." Spring, summer and fall 2020 graduates may participate.
Graduate and law students will attend ceremonies on Thursday, Dec. 17. Other students will attend ceremonies Friday and Saturday, with the number of ceremonies depending on the number of students signing up to participate. All students planning to attend must register by Nov. 6.
"Guest seats will be sectioned off in blocks of six chairs each and will be socially distanced from other groups. Student chairs also will be six feet apart on the floor," Post said, describing social distancing measures planned for the events.
The state Department of Health will review submitted plans for university commencements, said department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill. A statewide health directive for large indoor venues requires a plan to be submitted to state health authorities if more than 100 people are in attendance, though separate directives are in effect for some settings that include places of worship, casinos and school-sponsored sporting events.
Among the requirements, according to the large indoor venues health directive, is that a "facility, including seating, shall be cleaned and disinfected before and after each use."
The university's tentative schedule lists three ceremonies over the course of an afternoon and evening at the campus arena venues. For example, the schedule for Friday, Dec. 18, lists Bud Walton Arena as the site for ceremonies at 1 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 6 p.m., according to the university's announcement Tuesday.
Post did not respond when asked late Tuesday afternoon if a plan had been submitted for approval to the Health Department.
UA will limit the total number of people at each ceremony, depending on location, Post said. For events at Bud Walton Arena, the limit per ceremony is 300 students and 1,800 guests. At Barnhill Arena, the limit per ceremony is approximately 140 students and 840 guests.
On stage, "there will be no handshakes," Post said. "Students will walk across the stage and receive a diploma cover."
The state's second-largest university, Arkansas State University, announced Monday that it plans to hold a December graduation ceremony, tentatively set for Dec. 19 outdoors at Centennial Bank Stadium. It held an outdoors ceremony in August for its spring 2020 graduates.
A few other large schools in the state have said they will not have in-person commencements this fall, including Arkansas Tech University, which has plans for a virtual ceremony Dec. 12. The Russellville campus has said 2020 graduates -- spring, summer and fall -- will be able to attend a spring 2021 commencement.
Large public universities in nearby states moving forward with plans for in-person ceremonies include Texas A&M University, which has scheduled events spaced out over five days in December at its basketball arena.
Mississippi State University has tentatively scheduled an in-person commencement for Nov. 25 rather than in December. Similarly, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville has moved up its in-person fall commencement ceremonies to Nov. 19-22 while also welcoming spring 2020 graduates to attend.
Haley Harrison, a spring 2020 UA graduate now working as a teacher in South Carolina, said she's unsure how many recent graduates will attend.
"All the people I know, anyway, we've moved on, so going back to do a graduation ceremony just seems like not super important," Harrison said.
Katie Lindner, 22, earned a bachelor's degree in education and is continuing at UA as a graduate student.
She said missing out this past spring on commencement was disappointing.
"I worked really hard for four years to walk across the stage in front of my friends and family, but I understand why we couldn't have it," Lindner said.
Now, she said she's going to wait to participate in a spring commencement when she completes her graduate degree.
"If they had held a commencement ceremony in August -- so when it was still fresh -- I probably would have attended," Lindner said.