Last month, the Florida Board of Governors — the body that runs all public universities in the state — directed state universities to come up with "alternate plans" for fall 2020 commencement ceremonies in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
"Recognizing that health guidelines still limit gatherings at this time, it is prudent for universities to develop alternate plans for fall commencement ceremonies, which include any rescheduled spring or summer commencement plans that may have been changed to the fall," the board's September 23 statement says.
Across the U.S., many in-person graduation ceremonies have been postponed or canceled since March, and some universities have opted instead for virtual ceremonies for students to watch at home with family.
That arrangement makes sense to FIU senior Tanvi Hathiramani, who's set to graduate this December. She understands that in-person ceremonies don't make sense during the pandemic. But at the beginning of the semester, she got an email from the FIU Athletics Department saying that fall football games would be open to fans, and she was baffled.
"I got so angry," Hathiramani tells New Times.
FIU football games are being held at the Riccardo Silva Stadium this season at 20 percent capacity, allowing up to 1,900 attendees in socially distanced seating, as first reported by the student publication PantherNOW.
After getting the email from FIU Athletics, Hathiramani started a petition asking university administrators to allow for socially distanced graduation ceremonies, too.
"We aren't asking to host an inside graduation that goes against [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines. We are simply asking for an accommodation," Hathiramani wrote in the petition, which has netted more than 4,000 signatures. "Why is it that 1,900 students can attend a football game, but seniors, most of them being first-generation students (which FIU loves to pride itself in), cannot have an outdoor, socially distanced graduation?"
Hathiramani says she holds no ill will toward student athletes who may be happy to return to the field. But she thinks it's unfair to have in-person sports events when seniors can't celebrate their own hard work.
"I don't want it to come across like I'm attacking FIU," Hathiramani says. "I'm happy for the football players, but for people who aren't in athletics, this is something we worked hard for. I wouldn't want my efforts to be discredited."
Tyson Rodgers, a spokesperson for FIU Athletics, tells New Times via email that the board of directors for Conference USA, which oversees Division I sports at member universities, approved this fall's football schedule for teams in the league. Rodgers says FIU Athletics implemented safety protocols, such as staggered seating and reduced capacity, in conjunction with the university's coronavirus task force.
FIU students aren't alone in their frustration. Petitions from students at most of Florida's public universities, including the University of Florida, Florida State University, and the University of Central Florida, have sprung up on Change.org. The stark difference between plans for football and plans for graduation have left some seniors incensed.
"UCF has canceled our commencement ceremonies but continues to host football games and other sporting events at a limited capacity. They are using COVID-19 as an excuse to not spend money on its graduating class," reads the UCF petition, which was written by student Heather Precourt. "We have worked so hard, spend [sic] thousands of dollars at this school, and been students for 4+ years, only to get pushed aside for money."
While Conference USA and universities have allowed football games to continue, numerous college athletes have reported cases of COVID-19 this season. UF placed its football program on pause last week after players and coaches reported testing positive and were placed in quarantine. FIU's own football program postponed a game against the University of North Carolina at Charlotte on October 16 because of an increase in positive COVID-19 test results among the team, according to the Miami Herald.
After Hathiramani's petition began getting traction online, she says FIU administrator Dania Pearson-Adams reached out to her and explained that the Board of Governors had advised against holding in-person commencement ceremonies.
Reached by New Times via email, Pearson-Adams said the university will be hosting a drive-thru commencement caravan where graduates will be able to receive a congratulatory diploma from FIU's panther mascot Roary and wave hello to FIU President Mark Rosenberg.
"Another enhancement we are finalizing is a Commencement Fair to take place outdoors," Pearson-Adams said. "Commencement is important to all of us at FIU, and we are looking forward to the day we can have our traditional commencements with brothers and sisters, parents, grandparents, and other loved ones."