Commencement exercises at any college or university are and should be a big deal, marking as they do the significant accomplishment of the graduates in completing their course of study and earning their degrees. This weekend’s commencement at Keene State College will be no different in this respect, and we certainly congratulate all of the college’s graduates as they receive their diplomas and enter a significant next chapter of their lives.
But this year of all years, the ceremony — scheduled to be held on Fiske Quad Saturday — is occasion for even broader congratulations from those in its host community. Those congratulations are not just to the graduates, faculty and administration for another year of academic accomplishment. In addition, they are for the college’s success in completing the year on campus as safely as it did amid the pandemic.
There were certainly concerns when Keene State announced plans to bring students back to campus last fall, both for the safety of the college community as students attended class and participated in other activities, and for the potential risks to Keene and its off-campus neighborhoods, where many students live and would be interacting with city residents.
At the same time, it was important for the students to be and remain back in Keene. Certainly it was for the college, which considers its shared on-campus environment essential to the experience it provides. So too was it important for the city and the region, whose businesses were reeling from the pandemic lockdown and subsequent limitations and needed the economic jolt the students could provide.
The college, under President Melinda Treadwell’s leadership, came up with a comprehensive plan to bring the students back last fall but to do so guided by data and health experts, with health and safety considerations paramount. Central to the planning was a robust testing and contact-tracing program aimed at minimizing the chance of students bringing COVID from elsewhere and isolating those exposed to the coronavirus to prevent further spread. The academic calendar was adjusted to reduce risk, most notably when Keene State wisely delayed until mid-February its second semester and canceled its spring break to allow more distance from the dangerous holiday surge and lessen exposure from student travel.
Equally important to the college’s efforts, though, has been the buy-in of its students to Treadwell’s insistent message that their commitment to observing precautions and limitations on social interaction was key to keeping the campus open and students in Keene and an important part of being good neighbors. And city leaders played a part too, enacting a mask ordinance and a social-host ordinance that, while they each addressed other and broader purposes, also buttressed Keene State’s ability to enforce its restrictions on off-campus social interaction.
Not that there haven’t been challenges. Testing frequency had to be ramped up when positivity rates began climbing. And a recent jump in infections in the college community may be attributable to a lowering of the guard by students as the school year ends. Yet the college’s precautions and the extent of student acceptance of necessary limitations has meant a school year at Keene State that did not see some of the super-spreader parties or other concerning activity that, for example, the University of New Hampshire’s Durham campus experienced.
It was hardly a normal year for Keene State. That it has reached its end as successfully as it has owes much to the planning and stewardship of Treadwell and the administration and staff and the concern they and the students have shown for themselves and the city. As the graduating students collect their diplomas this weekend and head off to new challenges, and as the remaining students leave for summer experiences, they can continue to expect life’s finest hour is still to come. But they should also take some pride knowing their efforts this year have made it a pretty fine one.