DETROIT — Rachael Lobdell has never put on a cap and gown and walked across a stage to get a diploma.
She dropped out of Michigan's South Lyon High School in the late 1990s when she was 16.
Nearly 25 years later, with a GED in hand and classes at Henry Ford College nearly completed, Lobdell of Dearborn will graduate in May with a surgical technologist associate degree in applied science. She expects to soon take her state board exams to become a surgical technologist.
Lobdell said she is disappointed that her college commencement is going to be virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"For me to miss out on walking across the stage in a cap and gown for my first degree is pretty heartbreaking," said Lobdell, who plans to continue her education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
For the second consecutive year and as the state leads the country in new COVID-19 cases, some Michigan universities are hosting virtual graduation ceremonies to avoid crowds and mitigate the spread of the virus. Those ceremonies viewed through a screen are drawing criticism from students and parents weary of the pandemic who argue other colleges are finding creative ways to bring students together, even if events are outside.
Students and parents at several colleges, including the University of Michigan, Western Michigan University and Ferris State University, have lobbied officials to change their plans from virtual events to in-person graduation ceremonies.
"We understand that these are extenuating circumstances, but extenuating circumstances call for extraordinary solutions," reads a change.org petition seeking an in-person graduation ceremony at WMU in Kalamazoo.
The petition, created by senior Isabel Campbell and which has garnered more than 1,300 signatures, notes graduation ceremonies could be held over several days with people spaced 6 feet apart at Western's football stadium with each graduate having a limited number of guests.
"There is such a difference between recognition online versus going in person and getting recognition from your family and professors and other people as well," said Campbell. "It's a different kind of recognition."
WMU's graduation on May 1 will remain virtual, said spokeswoman Paula Davis.
"We have a pandemic going on, and gathering thousands of people together is not wise right now," Davis said.
UM is hosting a virtual graduation on May 1. It will include interactive features such as a social media ticker beneath the ceremony video that will share celebratory messages and graduates will be able to turn on the cameras on their computer or phone and join the ceremony live during the conferring of degrees. Additionally, graduating seniors can watch the virtual ceremony in-person at Michigan Stadium but cannot bring guests.
That's not enough for some parents.
During the UM Board of Regents meeting in March, several people spoke to the board and asked officials to reconsider and host an in-person celebration at the stadium. Among them was Kelly Hurley, whose son will be graduating next month.
"There are other safe and responsible options to consider that would more appropriately recognize the once-in-a-lifetime achievement of the graduating seniors," Hurley told the regents.
She noted other universities, including Michigan State, have not shied away from the challenge of hosting in-person graduation ceremonies.
In an unusual move, UM President Mark Schlissel spoke at the end of the meeting and said a graduation ceremony would involve many faculty and staff who are not yet vaccinated.
"Although a stadium of our size can certainly spread people out, they have to get in and out of the building and they have to do so safely and without congregating," Schlissel said. "At the end of the day, balancing the need to commemorate an important passage in the life of our students with the health and safety of the many people I am responsible for that work here, that is the balance."
In Washtenaw County, 32% of the population is fully vaccinated and 55% of residents have at least one dose. One-third of Michigan residents are fully vaccinated and 47% have at least one dose.
Isiah Lattimore said he's disappointed he won't be walking across a stage to get his diploma.
Lattimore, who worked to support a family for several years after high school before enrolling at UM-Flint, is graduating this spring with a degree in fine arts.
He painted a mural on the UM-Flint Harrison Street parking structure in downtown Flint titled 'The David' as a tribute to the pandemic-stricken classes of 2020 and 2021.
"I grew up pretty poor so going to college was a big deal," Lattimore said. "I was expecting to be part of a graduation ceremony. But I got to put up a whole mural, and that is a big deal. So I think it worked out."
UM-Flint's graduation isn't an actual event but rather a "choose your own adventure," said spokesman Jennifer Hogan. There's Lattimore's mural, a commencement video that students can watch at their convenience and spaces on campus where students can celebrate.
Some universities are offering in-person commencement events.
Michigan Technological University in the Upper Peninsula is having a graduation walk through campus on Friday. Graduates will be able to walk with up to six guests, the Huskies Pep Band will perform and there will be photo opportunities along the path. Faculty and staff have been invited to line the path. Graduates will also be able to sign their class banner.
Oakland University is offering hybrid celebrations over several days with graduates coming to campus for a "drive-in" commencement, similar to a drive-in movie.
Oakland held a similar graduation event in August and about 700 students participated. But this spring, 1,800 students are expected to participate in six ceremonies over three days in May.
A few universities including MSU, Saginaw Valley State University and Central Michigan University are hosting smaller, in-person ceremonies over several days.
Costa Gianiodis, a finance major, will be among several MSU students graduating with business majors at 8 a.m. on Friday. He plans to wear his cap and gown to the two-hour ceremony and gave his two tickets to his parents so they could attend.
MSU is hosting 50 small outdoor graduation ceremonies over three weekends at the end of April and in early May, MSU spokesman Dan Olsen said. The university is allowing up to 500 attendees per ceremony including graduates and their guests. All participants will be seated 6 feet apart, asked to wear a mask and submit to a health screening.
Graduates' names will be read and the students will walk across a stage and get a symbolic diploma before getting their picture taken. Actual diplomas will be mailed.
Gianiodis said he's excited to be part of the ceremony and commends MSU staff for the work they've done to plan the events.
"Everyone knows it has been a really long pandemic," Gianiodis said. "It was really nice for them to make the effort to give us a send-off."
At the same time, he knows he is among the few college students who are getting to attend an in-person graduation.
"I feel for those students (who can't attend in person)," Gianiodis said. "It is really unfortunate. Hopefully, they will be able to get through it and move on to the next part of their lives."