The University’s announcement that students will be permitted to move on-Grounds and take in-person classes was met with both frustration and praise from students and community members.
Despite the potential risks of returning, many students have been anticipating their experience in Charlottesville. First-year Engineering student Lauren Jackson, who plans to live on Grounds for the fall semester, said that she is looking forward to in-person learning and spending time with suitemates.
For Jackson, the ability to take classes in-person was especially important to her decision to move on-Grounds.
“I really hate Zoom,” Jackson said. “It feels so unnatural and hard to talk to people. If my class is hybrid, it’ll be easier to interact with people and actually feel like you're meeting people.”
Despite other schools — like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Notre Dame — which transitioned to online classes due to COVID-19 outbreaks, Jackson said that she was expecting the University to allow first-years to move on Grounds because of the social distancing, wastewater testing, and enhanced sanitation guidelines that have been enacted.
While the majority of first-years moved onto Grounds this past week, 18 percent decided to stay at home for the fall semester according to an Aug. 14 town hall with University leaders.
First-year College student Catherine Tran is one of the students not returning to Charlottesville because she is concerned about being sent back home. Tran said that she is frustrated with the University for changing instruction modes for some classes from in-person to online just weeks before the start of the school year, as well as for waiting until late summer to release information on the semester.
“I’m kind of skeptical about the decision to stay open since a lot of schools around us are gathering more and more cases everyday, and everyone keeps getting sent home after just a few weeks,” Tran said.
Still, Tran noted that she feels like she is missing out on extracurricular activities and the “overall college experience” by staying home.
The University’s decision doesn’t just impact students, however — faculty who were used to hosting discussions in-person are now adjusting to hosting them on Zoom, while those teaching in person must prepare to adhere to new safety guidelines.
English Prof. James Seitz had initially decided to teach his courses — Advanced Writing Seminar and Literature and Sports — online this semester for the safety of him and his students. Seitz took a sabbatical in the spring, so he didn’t experience Zoom instruction prior to this fall.
After teaching several virtual classes, however, Seitz decided to switch to a hybrid model in order to foster a greater sense of community with his students.
“When people are together they get that sense of togetherness that provides them sustenance and hope,” Seitz said. “If we deny ourselves socialization it’s kind of like denying movement — you can live without it, but it’s hard to live happily without it. I think when it comes to learning it’s just extremely important for us to be together and in one another’s presence.”
Seitz said that he may continue to use Zoom in class as social distancing guidelines make it challenging for his class to participate in small discussion groups.
Returning to work with new health and cleaning protocol poses especially unique and difficult challenges for staff who are learning English.
Elizabeth Wittner, academic director and coordinator of the International Teaching Assistant Training Program, works with international and English-learning community members in the University community. Wittner also directs the Multilingual Volunteer Outreach Effort program, established in April, which translates information about COVID-19 relief programs to be accessible to community members learning English.
Upon reading the University-wide email committing to let students return to Grounds, Wittner said that she immediately thought about the decision’s impact on staff members who don’t speak English fluently.
“I first thought about the employees who are speakers of other languages because I thought of all the new protocols and directions that they're going to be reading in English,” Wittner said. “I’ve worried about the language load for them in understanding all of this and the need for continued English Language Learning and translation services.”
Groups across Grounds, including U.Va.’s Young Democratic Socialists of America and the Union Campus Workers of Virginia, have contested the decision for health and safety risks. YDSA led these efforts with a petition drafted over the summer, which lists 11 demands including an opt-in C/NC grading system, a tuition freeze through the 2022-2023 school year and hazard pay for all workers. In coordination with both UCW-VA and Charlottesville Democratic Socialists of America, YDSA also organized a “Die In” protest Sept. 1 to protest in-person classes.
Sharing similar concerns to YDSA following the University’s decision, UCW-VA reiterated the demands expressed in their #ActFastUVA campaign and said that the University’s reasoning for choosing to offer in-person instruction is flawed.
“We are not merely ‘disappointed.’” the union said. “We are afraid for the safety of our neighbors and loved ones, heartbroken at the potential for loss of health and life, and above all, angry at the University administration for setting aside the safety of thousands in exchange for what will likely be a few short weeks of limited in-person instruction.”
Crystal Luo, one of the union’s members and a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, said that she doesn’t want to see University administration blame students for eventual outbreaks.
“We think that that’s very counterproductive and we think that whatever ultimately happens should be the responsibility of the administration,” Luo said. “We don't think it keeps anyone significantly safe for students to feel like they are one another’s police.”
Like UCW-VA and YDSA, Student Council’s Executive Board released a statement calling for online instruction and opt-out on-Grounds housing before the University’s decision. Citing “disturbing trends” in rising COVID-19 cases at other universities, Student Council said that the University could not “in good faith” move forward with its plans this fall.
Despite the University’s decision, Student Council President Ellen Yates, a fourth-year College student, said that she believes that the University is putting a burden on students to behave appropriately and that some students will choose to ignore guidelines that have been set.
“I think the reality is [that] there will be a small portion of students that, for selfish reasons, ignore those rules and put everyone else at risk,” Yates said. “The University knows that and has still made the decision to bring everybody back and run the risk that people will get sick or become seriously ill.”
Wes Hester, deputy University spokesperson and director of media relations, said that the health of its community members is the University’s highest priority.
“The University values the input of our employee community and we have engaged stakeholders from across the University and broader communities throughout the Return to Grounds process,” Hester said.