While working as an emergency services coordinator at a local homeless shelter, rising fourth-year Engineering student Rob Schwartz began to consider the difficulties of coordinating organization efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Schwartz related his experiences to the orchestration of a hypothetical fall semester at the University and what that would look like.
His deliberations led to the creation of the Student COVID Coalition, a group of students who have committed to carrying out any extra labor the University may require to safely reopen and operate for the 2020-21 school year.
The University upholds a strong principle of student self-governance, which has likely influenced these students to volunteer their time to provide labor for any tasks the University needs. The SCC’s mission statement indicates their hypothetical function — “to volunteer our combined time if and when needed, for the sole purpose of controlling the current COVID-19 pandemic at the University of Virginia.”
According to Schwartz, “the coalition will dissolve in a year’s time or when COVID-19 is no longer a threat, whichever is sooner.”
As of press time, the University had not confirmed that the coalition could reasonably carry out any tasks as they have yet to receive approval from the University administration.
William Krag, rising fourth-year College student and executive committee member, explained that the kinds of tasks they imagine themselves doing would include contact tracing, as well as constructing temporary buildings to create holding areas and conducting medical scans or temperature checks. Moreover, Krag pointed out that their coalition could be of primary use for cleaning common spaces.
“All common spaces [should be] cleaned, not just on a regular basis, but hourly or twice hourly in a capacity that the University’s normal cleaning staff wouldn’t be able to do,” Krag said. “We’re hoping to be able to fulfill that extra step to make sure everything is clean to the necessary degree.”
Kyle Reed, rising second-year College student and executive committee member, highlighted that the coalition hopes to act as an extra resource rather than as a substitution for paid employees.
“For instance, we were thinking about how perhaps we could offer our services to come back a little bit early and help clean first-year dorms,” he said. “That’s something we thought of along the point that the school already has people to do that. We do not want to be taking away paid positions from employees — that’s kind of counterintuitive.”
Krag added that the group is working on developing a volunteer management system in order to schedule and communicate student availability to the University. The group currently consists of around 100 members, though they are still accepting applications, and prerequisite knowledge is not required to join. Interested students will then receive an email allowing them to make a formal commitment to provide either 2.5 or 5 hours per week for tasks requested by the University contingent on an in-person semester. The formal commitment includes an Honor pledge which, according to Krag, helps emphasize the legitimacy of members’ desire to aid the University.
“We want students who are signing up to say they really are committing to this,” Krag said. “We also want to communicate to the University that the students are doing this on their honor … They’re doing this truthfully and are going to be able to provide this level of commitment in the fall.”
Kyle Reed explained that the coalition plans to provide all members with personal protective equipment in order to carry out any requested tasks by the University. Concurrently, the coalition acknowledges that obtaining PPE is an obstacle they are currently facing.
“[It’s] difficult because obviously the University health system is two blocks away,” Kyle Reed said. “We really don’t want to take any PPE away from them because they’re really going to need it. So securing that has definitely been an issue we’ve been looking at.”
The coalition is seeking to achieve Agency Organization status — a group whose members act as agents and perform duties on behalf of the University. According to Krag, this would allow the coalition to coordinate with the University for potential funding for PPE “to ensure that all students are safely protected when working for [the University].”
The students have also reached out to the University’s Fall 2020 Committee, a group of University representatives tasked with deciding various administrative decisions regarding a reopening.
Ja’Mel Reed, rising fourth-year College student and the sole student representative on the committee, said that there has been a “great reaction from the committee” regarding this student-led initiative.
“Seeing the amount of work students are willing to do and already have put into organizing these efforts helps us as we plan for the fall semester and what kind of resources we have available,” Ja’Mel Reed said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.
Ja’Mel Reed detailed that the committee is still discussing various possibilities regarding the fall semester, so concrete decisions regarding the coalition’s role and any risk involved are still being worked out. However, the coalition remains an asset to the committee’s planning and consideration.
“There are many different possibilities still concerning the pandemic, but knowing that we have this group as a resource will hopefully strengthen our plans if we do end up returning in the fall, or aid in overall safety if we return in the spring,” Ja’Mel Reed said.
Krag explained that the coalition hopes the University will train members for tasks such as performing temperature scans. However, the coalition is currently working to connect members with the free Coursera contact tracing course hosted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Topics that are taught in the course include the fundamentals of contact tracing and skills for effective communications in the tracing process.
Schwartz, who became certified as a contact tracer through the course, described it as about five to six hours long with an examination at the end. He also emphasized the value of this training after University President Jim Ryan directly expressed the benefits that contact tracing could provide to the University in his “Face the Nation” interview May 10. As of press time, the coalition had 21 certified members.
“Given our U.Va.-centric mission and Jim Ryan's comments about needing to be able to do contact tracing, it was clear to us that the SCC should take steps to certify its members,” Schwartz said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “Likewise, we would encourage individuals who have taken the course to join the SCC, so they may offer that skill directly to the University if needed.”
Members have been recruited through a variety of marketing channels, including Facebook groups, contracted independent organization’ listservs, word of mouth and GroupMe chats. Incoming first-year College student Celeste Amron heard about the Student COVID Coalition through a post on the U.Va. Class of 2024 Facebook page. As a daughter of a U.Va. alumna, Amron explained that she chose to join the coalition due to her lifelong connection to the University and her hope to fulfill her dream of being a student on Grounds this fall.
“I already feel a connection to U.Va. because of its importance throughout my life,” Amron said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “I knew that I wanted to sign up to help things get back to normal as soon as possible since this is such a new and quickly changing situation.”
Jule Voss, rising second-year College student and executive committee member, praised the self-sacrifice, unity and commitment of the members within the coalition.
“I think [the unity] speaks to our culture of self-governance,” Voss said. “I also think it speaks to the generosity of U.Va. students — that we all know we’re going to have to make sacrifices.’”
Beyond the orange and blue, Schwartz indicated that the implementation of the coalition will also be beneficial to the Charlottesville community itself.
“A lot of us are worried about the economic state of Charlottesville … as well as the people who work for the University,” Schwartz said. “Our aim is to help support bringing students back in a way that is both safe and beneficial for our community. I think that all of us love U.Va., and I think we want to be able to look back at this time and tell ourselves that we did everything that we could.”