University President Jim Ryan sat down for a 20-minute Zoom interview with The Cavalier Daily Wednesday afternoon to discuss the return of students to Grounds and the start of in-person learning.
Just over two weeks into the academic year, Ryan says he is “cautiously optimistic” that the University will not have to send students home mid-semester because of the University’s increased testing capacity and additional isolation and quarantine space.
He said one of the reasons the University decided to delay in-person move-in and instruction by two weeks was to provide more time for administrators to learn from other colleges across the country, such as the University of Notre Dame, which moved online a week after students returned to campus. In conversation with other university presidents, Ryan found that a lack of isolation and quarantine space was often a reason COVID-19 spread in college communities, prompting the University to reserve additional dorms for student use.
“There are more universities, frankly, that have kept their students on campus than those who have sent them home,” Ryan said. “And they've done it, I think, by doing their best to try to stay one step ahead and to limit the spread of the virus as quickly as possible, and the way to do that is through making sure you have a robust testing program and isolation and quarantine space.”
Another reason the University decided to reopen with in-person instruction, Ryan said, is because 12,000 to 15,000 students were expected to return to Charlottesville regardless of whether classes were online or not. The University estimates that an additional 4,400 students moved into on-Grounds housing, according to the Aug. 28 announcement that solidified fall semester plans.
“Most of the challenges occur or have occurred off campus or off Grounds,” Ryan added in the Wednesday interview. “[It] didn't make a lot of sense to not have in-person classes because that's not where the problems are arising.”
When asked how many cases, hospitalizations or deaths would trigger the University to close dorms and end in-person instruction, Ryan said the University does not have a target number, but is rather looking at testing and hospital capacity as well as available space for isolation and quarantine.
One factor that fuels his optimism is that the University’s hospitalization rate has remained manageable – 54 people have been treated for COVID-19 at U.Va. Health since Aug. 17.
“Even with the increase in cases over the last couple of weeks, the hospitalization rate has not increased as well, which tells you that those who are getting sick are not getting sufficiently sick to require hospitalization,” Ryan said.
In the event of a major outbreak at the University, he added that students would not necessarily be immediately sent home, but rather “temporary restrictions” would be put in place to ensure students aren’t infecting their home communities — an attempt to “flatten the curve.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently urged universities not to send students home after shutting down operations, calling it “the worst thing you could do.” Ryan agrees with the sentiment.
“Once you've brought all these students back to your campus from all over the country — in some instances all over the world — you want to do your very best to keep them on campus,” Ryan said. “Because if you're sending home students who are infected, then you're just spreading the virus.”
The University’s decision to proceed with in-person classes and on-Grounds housing has faced backlash from prominent Charlottesville figures, with Mayor Nikuyah Walker calling the choice “a recipe for disaster.” Ryan said he has been in contact with both Walker and the Charlottesville Human Rights Commission, which plans to send a letter to the University to voice its concerns with an in-person semester.
Ryan pointed out that thousands of students have already signed leases for off-Grounds housing, and many would return regardless of whether classes were in-person — a stance he “get[s] that not everyone will agree with.”
“I’ve always thought it was an incorrect premise to say we’re making a decision about whether students are going to return,” Ryan said. “Students are going to return. Students have returned.”
Operating under that premise, Ryan said that keeping Charlottesville residents safe requires welcoming students into the University community — rather than “putting up a closed sign” — to encourage a camaraderie that will motivate students to care for the health of one another.
The University allocated 1,500 beds for quarantine and isolation. Students who live on Grounds and test positive for the virus will be housed in repurposed residence halls — which currently sit at five percent capacity for quarantine housing and one percent for isolation — or at hotels the University has contracted.
Shortly after the University announced its intention to forge ahead with in-person classes this fall, residents of the International Residential College, Johnson, Malone and Weedon Houses and Shea House were notified that their dormitories would be converted into quarantine and isolation areas. Hundreds of students were forced to relocate and were given just 24 hours to choose a housing reassignment or remain off-Grounds.
Although Ryan apologized for the disruption to on-Grounds residents and RAs, he maintained his stance that “it was the right thing to do to make sure that we have sufficient space [for quarantine and isolation].”
According to Ryan, the decision to increase the number of rooms available for quarantine was made in light of lessons “learned from looking at other universities.”
“I was concerned that, and others shared this concern, it wasn’t going to be sufficient if we had a serious surge,” Ryan said, “So, we looked at places with very low density and decided that we ought to move those students to open up those spaces.”
Quarantine housing will also be accessible to students who do not live in University housing as needed, Ryan added.
“If someone off Grounds really has no option to safely quarantine or isolate, we will obviously work with students to figure something out,” Ryan said. “We did not go into this thinking that we should have isolation and quarantine space for every single student whether living off Grounds or on Grounds, but we recognize that if situations arise where someone off Grounds needs our help, we absolutely should be.”
To bring students into dorms involves other calculations.
Ryan acknowledged that the past week — marked by the arrival of first-years to on-Grounds dormitories and start of in-person learning — has come with a learning curve. Video footage of a crowded Observatory Hill dining hall circulated over the weekend, causing some upperclassmen and community members to reiterate concerns with the University’s decision to reopen.
In this situation, Ryan noted that the solution was to make sure students knew there are other dining options available and to implement people reminding students in the area of the six-foot social distancing guidelines.
“This is everyone's first time through a pandemic at U.Va., and as much as you can plan, new situations arise, and you have to react,” Ryan said. “And the goal is to react quickly enough and to learn from it and to resolve it.
In regards to a list of demands submitted Aug. 28 to Housing and Residence Life by Resident Advisors at the University, Ryan said he is aware of the demands but that the University does not plan to issue a formal response.
“My view is that we should make sure that the RAs have what they need to be successful,” Ryan said.
In their letter to HRL, the RAs express great concern for their personal safety and also that of their residents and the Charlottesville community. They call upon HRL to treat resident staffers as “frontline workers” and provide them with the “necessary resources to fulfill our role and protect ourselves, our residents and the community.”
Among their demands are hazard pay as frontline workers and adequate PPE, revised and clearly articulated policing and COVID-19 guidelines, provisions for food security and housing stability and revised financial aid policies for resident staff. The RAs anonymously submitted their letter and list of ten demands out of fear of retribution due to a policy that restricts resident staff from speaking to the press.
Although Ryan said that HRL and the Office of Student Affairs are “working with the RAs,” an RA who helped to spearhead the creation of the letter and list of demands told The Cavalier Daily that HRL has yet to explicitly acknowledge the receipt of the RAs’ letter and demands.
Ultimately, Ryan said these first weeks give hope that the University community will rise to the occasion.
“Not everyone is following all of the protocols, which is to be expected, but I've been really heartened by the degree to which students in particular are taking this seriously,” Ryan said. “There’s nothing like seeing examples at other universities where things have gone awry, to make you realize that it takes everyone doing their very best to give us a chance of succeeding.”