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Montana State University’s commencement Sunday will be virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead of hosting an in-person, socially distanced commencement, the university earlier this month opted for a virtual ceremony. The decision came after the Gallatin City-County Board of Health issued new regulations limiting gathering sizes.

Interested members of the public can tune in to the university’s fall commencement live stream at 11 a.m., on Sunday. All graduates’ names will be read out loud, and their names will appear on screen. The ceremony is scheduled to run until just before 2 p.m.

“I understand this news is disappointing and will disrupt the plans many of our students and their families had made around this important occasion,” wrote Waded Cruzado, MSU president, in a campus-wide letter about the virtual event. “I feel nothing less than heartbreak that we cannot celebrate this important life milestone for our students.”

At the virtual ceremony, the university plans to recognize students who’ve earned doctoral and masters degrees first. Students who earned degrees from the College of Agriculture, the College of Arts and Architecture, the Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship, the College of Education, Health and Human Development, the Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering, the College of Letters and Science, the College of Nursing and Gallatin College will be recognized second.

Colleges also offered separate virtual celebrations for graduates this week. Graduates should receive their diplomas and a keepsake commencement program in the mail after commencement, according to the university.

Student enrollment at MSU declined 3% this fall compared to last fall semester, according to data released in September. The university opted to host fall courses in person, online and in a blended manner to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Positive cases of the novel coronavirus have soared in Gallatin County in recent months, reaching an all-time high of 345 new cases in one day on Nov. 14.

On Nov. 6, the Gallatin City-County Health Board issued new county-wide restrictions limiting group sizes to 25 people in an attempt to curtail a surge in cases. Schools, organized youth activities and houses of worship were excluded from the rules. University classes and labs continued their day-to-day activities.

On Nov. 19, there were 108 new cases county-wide and 888 active cases. As of Nov. 20, 23 people were being hospitalized due to the virus. Thirteen people had died.

Young adults aged 20 to 29 represented the demographic with the highest number of cases, making up 2,300 out of 6,406 total cases reported county-wide.

Cruzado wrote in her Nov. 6 letter that health officials hadn’t detected virus transmission in classrooms or labs. A week later, she wrote that there hadn’t been significant evidence of transmission in those places.

“Thanks to our requirements for face masks and social distancing, classrooms remain one of the few places where large numbers of students can congregate regularly with relatively low risk,” she wrote Nov. 6.

Montana University System administrators announced Thursday campuses plan to host spring classes much like they did in the fall — with in-person learning. MSU administrators have been urging students to limit their social circle on and after Thanksgiving.

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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