Duke COVID-19 testing protocols create barrier to participating in graduation for some current, former students

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Two recent Duke graduates created an online petition urging the university to alter its graduation protocols, which exclude those not part of the school's surveillance program.

"It was pretty devastating because every time I would be studying for finals or midterms or whatever, I was looking forward to this moment of graduation," said Charlie Gelman, who helped create the petition after being unsatisfied with a response from a Duke administrator about his concerns.

Gelman worked for the football and wrestling teams during his time at Duke, and recently moved out-of-state to join the Baltimore Ravens as a coaching intern.

"(For my senior year), I wanted to see my parents at senior night of football, I wanted to have senior night for wrestling, I wanted to go to the Duke-UNC game, and I wanted to go to graduation," said Gelman, who noted the first three were not possible because of the pandemic.

Matthew Cone, a friend of Gelman's who was a walk-on kicker for Duke's football team, also graduated in December. Though he still lives in Durham, he's not part of the school's surveillance program. Despite the fact that three of his roommates are part of the program, Cone is in the same position as Gelman.

"It kind of became clear to us that it didn't seem like there was a real good reason to not provide some type of pathway to return to Durham or simply re-enter the testing protocol," Cone said.

Besides December graduates, the policy also affects students who are learning remotely and would like to participate in graduation.

Duke has largely earned praise for its handling of the pandemic, and its strict testing strategy has limited the spread of COVID on-campus. Both Gelman and Cone were clear they did not want to jeopardize the campus community, but feel they can come to a compromise that allows students and graduates in their position to walk.

"We want to at first just sit down with some of the Duke administrators who have the ability to make decisions on how commencement is going to work and operate, and simply hash out how we can incorporate ourselves into this protocol in the safest way. We want to come back safely, we don't want to endanger our fellow students or the Durham community," Cone said. "But it's important to us that we have this experience. So we want to met with the people whoa remaking the decisions, and say 'hey, you guys do a lot of surveillance testing. We can do quarantine, or we can do whatever North Carolina state law or (university) policy mandates, whether that's seven days in quarantine with testing daily and then walking on the eighth day, or whatever that be, and just come to some sort of solution where we can utilize the protocol and precedent that Duke has set up."

Duke already has a return process for students on-campus who have to travel outside the area, a point mentioned in the petition.

"We would be more than willing to follow the same exact protocol," Gelman said.

ABC11 reached out to Duke for a response to the petition. A spokesperson wrote in part:

"We are aware of the concerns of the students learning remotely. As the circumstances around COVID continue to change, the discussion regarding a safe graduation experience is also ongoing."

The petition was formed prior to last week's announcement from Gov. Roy Cooper, moving up the vaccination priority groups statewide. It also was posted before Duke announced it expected to have enough Johnson & Johnson vaccine to cover the entire Duke community during the next several weeks.

"The logic would make it pretty easy for them to allow us (to participate). I think the hard part is of course the short timeline," Gelman said.

Duke's graduation ceremony is set to take place May 2.

Gelman and Cone are working with Duke Student Government to try to facilitate an agreement with university administrators, allowing those affected to participate in graduation.

"Throughout this process in figuring out what's going on, we've actually been connecting with more and more students in this situation. So we've created almost a small team," Cone said.

The petition has garnered more than 1,000 signatures in less than a week.
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