University President Jim Ryan provided the Board of Visitors with an update on the University’s reopening and COVID-19 prevention efforts — such as testing and student compliance with public health guidelines — at Friday’s full Board meeting. Director of Athletics Carla Williams also detailed the return of student athletes to Grounds and Mazzen Shalaby, a fourth-year Batten student and student representative to the Board, delivered remarks.
Update on the University’s reopening and COVID-19 prevention efforts
Ryan, who spoke with both students and Resident Advisors during move-in last week, said that he was glad the University staggered the process because it did not feel crowded.
Still, Ryan said that he recognizes that Resident Advisors are facing “difficult and more challenging issues” this semester, noting that he had seen a list of demands published by an anonymous group of RAs. The demands, released Aug. 28 via Twitter, call on Housing and Residence Life to support RAs this semester by addressing COVID-19 and safety issues — such as providing additional compensation, hazard pay, meals, and personal protective equipment — as well as several equity and inclusion concerns.
“The professional and student leadership of the resident staff program are working together to provide RAs with the support they need,” Ryan said. “This will too be an ongoing conversation.”
With in-person classes underway, Ryan said that he would describe the University’s reopening as “so far, so good” — but not perfect. He noted that he has been impressed with students’ willingness to comply with the University’s public health guidelines, such as mask-wearing and limiting the size of gatherings.
The University plans to begin ramped up COVID-19 testing efforts this week — mandatory asymptomatic testing will occur daily, and the University will require anywhere from 50 to 150 students living on Grounds or in the Charlottesville area to get tested at the Student Activities Building. Additionally, the University plans to begin monitoring wastewater coming out of residence halls in an effort to catch potential outbreaks — if the water detects an infection, the University will test the entire building.
Ryan said that he was confident in the University’s capacity to quarantine and isolate students who test positive for the virus and addressed dissatisfaction following the forced relocation of hundreds of on-Grounds residents after the University told them that their dorms would be used for quarantine housing. Ryan acknowledged that the decision was “disruptive and unpopular,” but said that it was “necessary” in order to create more space for isolation and quarantine, which has been a big factor among universities who have been forced to close this fall.
Finally, Ryan said that the University is working to develop a second version of its COVID-19 dashboard, which will include more information on the spread of the virus in the University community.
Update on fall sports from Director of Athletics Carla Williams
Director of Athletics Carla Williams provided the Board with an update on student athletes, who began returning to Grounds for training in early July. Williams said that the athletic department had wanted to take a conservative approach to bringing athletes back, though most Power Five schools allowed student athletes to come back in June.
As of this week, all 17 of the University’s varsity programs are back on Grounds. According to Williams, Virginia Athletics administered 649 tests in the first nine days of September — as of Friday, there were five additional cases of COVID-19 among student athletes and 17 student athletes in quarantine.
Williams also said that the athletic department has implemented numerous safety protocols in order to safeguard student athletes, coaches and staff. Thanks to a contribution of 2,500 masks from a former football player, the athletic department was able to issue masks to individuals throughout the athletic department. Additionally, Williams said that cleaning and sanitization of weight rooms and training rooms has been a priority of Virginia Athletics and noted that student athletes are not permitted to use locker rooms yet.
Women’s soccer kicked off the University’s fall sports season Saturday, while Virginia Football’s season opener was postponed due to “COVID-19 issues” at Virginia Tech. All fall Olympic sports will play a modified schedule this season and fan attendance at games will be limited to families of student athletes and coaching staff.
Remarks from student member of the Board
Fourth-year Batten student Mazzen Shalaby, the student representative to the Board, focused on the University’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the racial equity task force’s recommendations and student concerns in his remarks to the Board.
Shalaby said that he has been impressed with students’ resilience and dedication in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in light of all that they have missed out on. He said that he thinks the University has made important strides in areas like testing, but noted that students still have concerns about what will happen if cases rise and how to protect the Charlottesville community and University employees, staff and faculty.
“Understand that students — like you all — are exhausted from uncertainty or being yanked around by the pandemic, changing communication, changing decisions and people just want to feel like they can effectively plan for the future beyond the next 10 minutes,” Shalaby said. “While this isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault, it’s the reality of what we’re feeling.”
Shalaby also discussed recent efforts to extend last semester’s default credit/no credit grading policy, citing learning challenges students may face such as the mental and emotional struggles of learning online and “Zoom fatigue.”
Shalaby said that the topic he has heard the most about from students has been tuition. He acknowledged that this year’s tuition is already set, and the University is facing difficult times financially, but said that none of that invalidates students’ concerns.
“This is seemingly a no-win situation,” Shalaby said. “But I think frank communication about the financial realities of the University during this time may be a good place to start.”
Finally, Shalaby also discussed the racial equity task force’s recommendations, which the Board endorsed during its meeting Friday. The Board also voted to contextualize the Thomas Jefferson statue in front of the Rotunda, remove the George Rogers Clark statue on the Corner, rename the Curry School of Education and Human Development, rededicate or remove the Frank Hume Memorial Wall and rename Withers-Brown Hall at the School of Law. Shalaby said that these goals should be the “floor not the ceiling” and noted that while it is important to attract a diverse student body, he thinks it is that important that the University support them when they arrive.
“This is the moral minimum,” Shalaby said. “We cannot and we will not be a great and good university, or great and good people for that matter, without doing our part to address issues of inequality and justice.”