Mar. 31—NORTH ANDOVER — Stripped of pomp and circumstance, the Class of 2020 was the first to experience a trend of cancellations that no one wants to continue.
Despite loosened pandemic protocols and COVID-19 vaccinations becoming more accessible, Merrimack College officials announced this week they are not yet ready to return to normal year-end activities.
Several students who attend the North Andover college said officials put out a last-minute notice for on-campus seniors to gather Tuesday at Duane Stadium, for an announcement regarding graduation.
But as hopeful 2021 graduates learned more, it became clear that they, too, would have to sacrifice — for safety's sake.
"When they announced it was going to be in-person, everyone hooted and hollered," said 22-year-old senior Emma Bagni. "Everyone was really happy to hear the news. We had waited a long time for it."
However, she explained, "it took a turn when we saw later online that we wouldn't be walking across the stage. They didn't mention that in the meeting with seniors. We were blindsided a bit. It was tucked into a tab online."
The latest state guidelines, dated March 22, allow 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.
According to the Merrimack College website, the Class of 2021 will be celebrated Thursday, May 13, followed by the Class of 2020 on Saturday, May 15, to make up for last year.
Remote students are welcome to attend, according to the website. And everyone will be allowed two guests.
"Due to restrictions and social distancing challenges, graduates will not be walking across a stage," the website states. "But each graduate will still be individually celebrated and their names will be read aloud."
Both ceremonies can be viewed live online.
Tickets to the in-person event are not transferable. The school is requiring all attendees to complete a health screening form ahead of the ceremony.
Instead of being handed diplomas on their respective day, students will receive them at their home address. Diplomas for the Class of 2020 were similarly mailed last summer.
Brianna DeSalvo, 21, completed a financial planning program in three years at Merrimack College and was scheduled to walk with the Class of 2020. That, of course, did not happen.
"You envision graduation a certain way," she said. "It was hard enough to come to terms with it last year."
Acknowledging the continued seriousness of the pandemic, DeSalvo said she would rather wait until the fall and re-evaluate options, including the possibility of more guests and the opportunity for a moment on stage.
"I would love to have my grandparents there," she said. "I know they're hurt by the whole situation. It's nothing we can control."
Faculty may also be excluded.
The website reads, "Upon completion of the registration process for students and their guests, the college will announce its plans for faculty invitations to the ceremonies."
Bagni said she and others would like to be heard by the commencement planning team.
"If we can push through and keep COVID cases down on campus for the next six or seven weeks, I hope they'll consider allowing us to walk or invite more guests," she said. "I hope we can come together and find a happy medium together."
School officials cited state health and safety guidelines when announcing that typical outings encompassing "senior week" are cancelled.
An email from The Eagle-Tribune to a Merrimack College email address designated for commencement-related questions was not answered.
The college's website explains, "Our goal has been to have an in-person commencement. The best and safest way to do so, and meet state and local guidelines, is to schedule the ceremonies on May 13 and May 15."
The dates do not match what was originally noted in the school's spring handbook, frustrating some students who took to social media to say family members already booked flights for the original date, a week later.
Everyone who attends the ceremonies will be required to wear a face covering, practice social distancing and proper hand hygiene.