University of Oregon seniors facing virtual graduation frustrated by Olympic Trials, track plans
When the University of Oregon announced in early February it will have a virtual commencement ceremony for the second year in a row, the university was met with frustration from some students — not because they wanted to shirk COVID-19 guidelines, but because they believed it was a double standard.
UO's virtual commencement ceremony is scheduled for June 12. A week later, the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track & Field will be held at Hayward Field on UO's campus.
UO also announced this week it will host five collegiate track and field meets at Hayward, starting the weekend of April 2 and ending with the NCAA Championships June 9-12, the same week as graduation.
The university is not involved with the planning or organization of the Olympic trials. The trials are run by TrackTown USA, an outside party that contracts with UO for the use of Hayward Field.
Spectators are not welcome at the first NCAA meet, UO said.
While the university is unwavering on a virtual commencement, it is looking at adding some form of in-person activity for graduation.
For some students, though, it's not enough.
"I just want the (Olympic) trials and graduation to be held at the same standard — so either they both happen or they both don't," said Morgan Leone, a 22-year-old UO senior graduating in June. "And if they both don't, it's unfortunate they couldn't make it happen. (People) worked really hard for both of them, but I would love to see them both happen regardless."
Spring sports moving forward
The Olympic trials for track and field has been held at Hayward Field six times since 1972, though the first year only included men's events. The 2020 trials will be the seventh.
They are organized locally by TrackTown USA, a Eugene-based nonprofit organization that runs other large-scale track and field events. TrackTown has contracted with UO to rent space on campus for these events before, and this year is no exception.
The 2020 Olympics, which were postponed globally because of the COVID-19 pandemic, are scheduled to be held July 23 through Aug. 8 in Tokyo.
Although TrackTown consistently had to adjust plans for the trials, working with public health officials and the UO to adapt to changing policies, said CEO Michael Reilly, the organization still plans to host it in June.
"We are full-steam ahead in planning to host the Olympic trials in June," Reilly said. "We are remaining hopeful that the event is going to continue to be able to be held, and, the conditions here in Oregon and around the country continue to improve. But, if anything, we've learned over the last year we have to take things week by week."
UO sports such as softball, soccer and track and field are underway this spring. The NCAA has been regularly testing athletes for COVID-19 this year.
The Oregon track and field team will host five meets at the new Hayward Field this spring, which will "only be hosting guests of student-athletes and coaches as the meet schedule begins," and no spectators, Oregon Athletic Director Rob Mullens said.
More in-person activities will be allowed as guidelines change, potentially meaning spectators at events.
State guidelines vary standards
Lane County's risk level set by Oregon Health Authority has been dropping for several weeks. As the vaccination rate increased, the number of new cases has decreased significantly and as of Friday, the county was put in the "lower risk" category, which is the lowest category a county can be in.
"Even with Lane County moving into a lower risk category, the university’s educational and research activities are still restricted by the governor’s orders for higher education issued last June," UO spokesperson Molly Blancett told The Register-Guard in an email.
The governor's executive order notes that for research, residential and instructional activities, universities should follow what is directed from the Higher Education Coordinating Commission. It also states other activities on campus, such as athletics, need to comply with other executive orders and OHA guidance specific to the risk level of the county.
In the lower risk category, indoor classroom instruction cannot exceed 50 people, and outdoor classroom instruction 300 people, the HECC states. Outdoor recreation, including college athletics events, are allowed a maximum of 50% occupancy, according to OHA guidelines.
"These restrictions (for UO) are independent from activities organized by outside parties that have contracted to use UO facilities," Blancett said.
TrackTown's operating plans not set yet
However, TrackTown always has to comply with the policies laid out by UO on the use of the space, Reilly said, as part of the contractual agreement.
UO also will be paid by TrackTown for space used, as part of that contract. The exact dollar amount is still unclear, Reilly said, but will likely be set in the coming weeks as they come to better understand the amount of space the organization will rent from UO.
Lane County Public Health also is involved in Olympic trials planning and has been for past trials, Reilly said. When the time comes, TrackTown will present its plan to OHA.
"We fully expect a good rigorous analysis from them. We'll try to do our best to answer their questions that may evolve at that point, a need for us to adapt and change the operating plans that we're proposing," Reilly said.
"I imagine it's going to be an ongoing back-and-forth discussion with them in the coming weeks to try to arrive at a set of operating plans that they feel comfortable about," he said. "That will enable us to not only conduct a safe event for the participants there, but also do a good job of protecting the broader community."
UO entertaining in-person grad activities
The Olympic trials being contracted out to a third party doesn't change students' call for UO to seek alternatives for graduation.
"That really frustrated me in the sense that they're kind of hiding behind TrackTown," Leone said about UO. "I feel like they've been using that as an excuse.
"In a way like I feel like we signed a contract with the school, and we all paid our way through the university whether we liked it or not," she said.
"And it's frustrating to see that (UO) will be getting a paycheck out (from) TrackTown, and it seems very correlated to why they also want to keep pushing it to go on. I feel like the university tends to forget that we are also paying students and paid a lot of money to go here."
Leone is one of 1,600-plus people who have signed an online petition for UO to reconsider the decision to hold a virtual commencement and include more student input on alternatives.
The petition points out changes such as increased access to vaccines in Lane County, along with the track and field plans as reasons to reconsider.
UO announced there may be some opportunity for in-person activities at commencement, though the actual commencement ceremony will still be virtual. However, it's still unclear what these activities could be.
In a typical year, each school and college at UO (the business school, college of arts and sciences, etc.) has its own smaller commencement ceremony. This is where students actually have their names read and walk across stage to receive their degrees. Then there is a separate, university-wide commencement ceremony with speeches from UO President Michael Schill and other guests.
When asked whether these smaller school-specific ceremonies still were being considered, Blancett said UO is "actively exploring how it might add an in-person activity to complement planned virtual commencement ceremonies," but had nothing more to share at this time.
Students suggest safe alternatives
Leone set up a template email that students could fill out and send to UO leaders suggesting a way of doing in-person commencements. The program she uses shows about 200 people have used the template.
"It's basically suggesting doing many different ceremonies throughout the day at many different locations, without families, so Hayward, also at Autzen field, the EMU lawn," she said. "Everything I wrote followed the extreme risk guidelines, so it'd be 25 people outside all socially distanced ... it would be very strict, but at least families could tune in and watch."
With about 30 minutes per ceremony, following the most stringent guidelines the state has set, Leone said she calculated it would take a couple of days to get through everyone including the 2021 graduates, but it would be possible.
"I don't want anyone to think I'm disregarding COVID or trying to push for unsafe COVID activities," Leone said. "I just figured there are other universities working really hard to try and make something else safe. (UO) can absolutely do that for the seniors."
In the statement, UO's Blancett said UO is "eager to recognize students’ successes and achievements in meaningful ways."
"The health and safety of our community is a top priority, as is the ability to remain flexible while adhering to a rapidly changing guideline that may become more or less stringent over time," she said. "The safety of our campus community remains a top priority and a guiding principle as we navigate moving operations in and out of different risk levels."
posted Sunday March 28th