S.C. colleges get creative with commencement amid outbreak

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COLUMBIA (AP) — As schools across the nation turn to distance learning amid the new coronavirus outbreak, institutions of higher learning throughout South Carolina are coming up with a variety of ways to celebrate their spring graduates — even if social distancing means they can't do so as tradition dictates.

Last week, South Carolina State University officials announced that the Orangeburg school would hold a virtual commencement ceremony to honor this year's recipients of bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees. No date for that event has been set.

"Because we do not know if the country will conquer COVID-19 by July, August or even later, it is not wise for us to give students a date for when the next physical graduation will be held," university provost Learie Luke said.

Last month, Gov. Henry McMaster called on all of the state's publicly funded colleges and universities to finish out the 2020 spring semester with online coursework, part of multifaceted efforts to stem the COVID-19 outbreak. Public K-12 schools in the state have been doing classes online since last month, a situation McMaster and state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman have said could remain in place until summer dismissal, although no formal order to finish the term virtually has been issued.

More than 3,300 cases of COVID-19 have been reported throughout South Carolina, with at least 82 deaths. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild symptoms like fever and a cough that resolve in two to three weeks. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, more severe symptoms can occur, including pneumonia, that can lead to death.

Colleges and universities were quick to call off traditional graduation ceremonies last month as the outbreak spread. The University of South Carolina and Benedict College postponed their commencement exercises until early August, acknowledging that date may need to be moved as it draws closer. Officials at Clemson University, which hasn't announced its plans, called the decision to cancel its traditional commencement "heartbreaking" but the only "responsible choice," given the outbreak.

At the College of Charleston, where commencement is traditionally celebrated in the school's historic Cistern Yard, officials promised that a ceremony "will happen, just not when it was originally scheduled."

The Citadel, South Carolina's military college, is planning for a virtual commencement, announcing earlier this month that officials had asked each "cadet and student to submit a photo, along with written and video messages to appear on a commemorative virtual commencement website."

On Sunday, McMaster declared a new state of emergency in South Carolina, as his previous order doing so had reached its 15-day expiration. McMaster's new order keeps in place his earlier executive decisions to shutter dine-in restaurant services and nonessential businesses, shift public schools to online learning and activate the state's National Guard. He planned to hold a late afternoon media briefing on Monday.

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP

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