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Graduation and Covid-19
Image: Getty / Design: Tina Tiller

Covid-19April 13, 2023

The ‘unfair’ rule stopping Covid-positive students from postponing their graduation 

Graduation and Covid-19
Image: Getty / Design: Tina Tiller

Get Covid the week of your university graduation? Not all tertiary institutions will offer any leeway. Stewart Sowman-Lund reports.

This week the government agreed to maintain the final guard against the spread of Covid-19 for at least two more months, with the mandatory seven day self-isolation requirement staying in place until at least June.

As has been the case throughout the past three years of the pandemic, that means many people will be forced to miss important events or put off travel plans as they stay indoors for a week following the onset of Covid symptoms.

While isolation is mandatory, flexibility isn’t. AirBnb, for example, removed its Covid refund policy in April 2022. And some universities have chosen to stop Covid-positive students from deferring their chance to graduate.

That’s a move that Grace, a student at the University of Canterbury, says is “unfair”. 

Just as it has for many students, Covid had already made it a long road to graduation for Grace. After finishing her studies in November 2021, she was told her grades wouldn’t be back in time for that year’s December graduation ceremony. The next ceremony, in April 2022, was cancelled due to the pandemic and Grace opted not to attend the following August’s event because her family couldn’t make it. Work commitments similarly meant she couldn’t make the December 2022 event – “so April 2023 was when I hoped to graduate”.

But on the week of the ceremony, Grace tested positive for Covid-19. After informing the university that she had to remain in isolation, she was told that it wouldn’t be possible to defer graduating until the next ceremony. It was simply too late. “We are not able to defer you to the next celebration,” the university told Grace in an email. “Your name will be called at the April celebration and your name will be in the graduation programme.”

It was a massive disappointment for Grace. “I was pretty gutted,” she said. “It’s hard enough missing out on graduating with friends and having your family in town – but never being able to graduate was the cherry on top.” Her certificate would instead be mailed out to her. “I think it’s unfair,” Grace said.

A spokesperson for the University of Canterbury confirmed that it had strict rules in place that meant it wasn’t possible for students to reschedule their graduation at the last minute. “Covid-19 information for our students is on the University of Canterbury website, and aligns with government guidelines,” the spokesperson said. 

“It has been hard for millions of people around the world to miss out on in-person graduation celebrations amid national and international lockdown and public health restriction periods. Unfortunately, as we need to organise thousands of conferments per year, attendance is not able to be rescheduled after the final date to withdraw has passed.”

Grace also said she knew of people choosing not to test for Covid-19 the week of their graduation so there was no risk of missing the in-person ceremony. The university spokesperson said they would be “concerned” if this was the case. “Many graduates invite their loved ones to attend graduation celebrations who are elderly and/or immune-compromised,” they said.

Canterbury isn’t the only tertiary institute with similar rules around Covid-19 and graduation. The University of Auckland confirmed, too, that any students in isolation at the time of their planned ceremony would have to graduate in absentia. However, spokespeople for both Otago and Victoria universities said students could opt to defer their graduation to a later date, even at the last minute. “If a student tests positive for Covid-19 the week they are expected to graduate, we would fully withdraw them from the ceremony so that they can attend a later graduation ceremony,” the Otago spokesperson told The Spinoff.

This week Stuff revealed the University of Canterbury had “quietly” cancelled its December graduation ceremonies, prompting disappointment from students who said the pandemic had already caused enough disruption over the past few years.

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