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COVID-19 across the Commonwealth: How Virginia’s public universities have handled the pandemic

Students report struggling with course loads, loneliness and mental health

<p>Since students have returned to campus, Virginia's public have struggled to maintain isolation and quarantine space.</p>

Since students have returned to campus, Virginia's public have struggled to maintain isolation and quarantine space.

Masks, midterms and mandatory testing — this is the reality that the more than 200,000 students attending Virginia’s 15 four-year public colleges and universities have faced since returning to school. Despite the possibility of contracting COVID-19, freshmen and upperclassmen alike moved into on and off-campus housing this fall, unsure of what to expect. From Charlottesville to Blacksburg, it has become clear that this fall has been a semester like no other. So far, it’s unclear when — or if — things will return to normal.

A brief look at COVID-19 cases 

According to the University’s COVID-19 dashboard, there have been 1,108 total cases reported within the University community as of Monday. 26 of those cases are currently active, meaning that they were reported within the last 10 days. The University’s highest one-day spike of coronavirus cases came Sept. 17 when 59 cases were reported. 

Second-year College student Bridget Kennedy said that, before returning to Grounds this fall, she didn’t know anyone who had tested positive for COVID-19. Flash-forward a few months, however, and Kennedy said that multiple friends have contracted the virus.

“I’ve definitely felt more exposed to COVID here than I did at home,” Kennedy said. “Knowing people [who have contracted COVID-19] made it feel like the circle was closing in.”

In comparison, James Madison University has reported 1,607 total cases of COVID-19 — the most of any Virginia public university so far. After the school’s case count climbed to over 1,000 within the first five days of the semester, university administrators sent students home and moved to virtual instruction.

James Madison freshman Jillian D’Auria said that because she arrived on campus with the expectation that they would be sent home quickly, the decision didn’t come as much of a surprise — still, the behavior of other students worried her.

“I was nervous because I could hear people outside my dorm room still going to parties and stuff like that,” D’Auria said. “I was frustrated because they're partly to blame as to why I have to get sent home.”

For D’Auria, who drove five hours from her hometown of Flemington, N.J. to move into her dorm, leaving with about a week’s notice was no simple task.

“I have two parents that can't pick up and take me home at the drop of the hat — they have jobs that they can't just leave,” D’Auria said.

Just over two weeks later, James Madison’s administration announced its intentions to return to in-person learning Oct. 5 with several changes, such as launching a mandatory surveillance testing program, increasing quarantine and isolation space, making changes to dining facilities and canceling fall break.

D’Auria said that when she found out that students were going to move back in, she found herself worrying about what the school would do differently this time.

“I would have hoped that they would have been smart enough to not do that,” D’Auria said. “We know how the cases skyrocketed before.”

Still, D’Auria said that she feels like rules are being enforced more now that students have returned to Harrisonburg.

After James Madison, Virginia Tech has reported the second-highest number of cases at a Virginia public university with 1,452 reported since Aug. 3. 1,424 of those cases are students, and 94 were identified within the last seven days.

On the opposite side of this spectrum, William & Mary has reported just 51 total cases among students since they returned to Williamsburg a week earlier than usual in August. 

Limits on student gatherings, encouraging social distancing practices

Since students have returned, schools across Virginia have also tightened restrictions on student gatherings, mask-wearing and other behavior. 

At the University, additional restrictions on gathering sizes, mask-wearing and travel were put in place in late September. At the time they were announced, the restrictions were supposed to be in place for two weeks. Just before that time period expired, however, Dean of Students Allen Groves announced that they would be extended, and since then, the five-person limit on gatherings has been lifted to 10.

Kennedy said that while she thinks the majority of people have followed the University’s social distancing and masking guidelines, students’ attitudes have definitely changed as the semester progressed.

“People’s attitudes have changed to be a bit less cautious, which is concerning,” Kennedy said. 

William & Mary has implemented similar restrictions — there is a 10-person limit on outdoor gatherings and students are required to wear masks while on campus. Additionally, freshmen are not permitted to visit friends in other dorms, and there can be a maximum of three individuals in one dorm room.

William & Mary freshman Makayla Henry said that she thinks the restrictions the school has put in place have been a contributing factor to the school’s low case count.

“I’m glad I decided to come, even though there’s restrictions on what we can do,” Henry said. “I feel like they've taken the right precautions.” 

After bringing students back to campus following their shutdown, James Madison announced numerous changes to social distancing protocol and meeting restrictions on students by lowering the capacity of dining spaces, capping classroom capacity at 50 individuals and establishing a 10-person limit on gatherings.

Entry testing, prevalence testing and symptomatic testing

Not all universities required students to provide a negative COVID-19 test before returning to campus — while the University, William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University required that students participate in entry testing before attending in-person classes and activities, neither James Madison nor Virginia Tech required students to do so. 

William & Mary also required an additional round of university-wide testing in September, and plans to conduct a third round in October — the school has also offered to cover additional testing for students who wish to get tested before returning home at the end of the semester.

Many schools have also chosen to implement mandatory prevalence testing programs through which various numbers of students are randomly selected to undergo testing. George Mason University — the largest public research university in Virginia — tests about 900 of the roughly 14,000 people on-campus each week through its testing program, for example, while William & Mary tests 5 percent of its student population weekly. U.Va. recently implemented a regular testing schedule, through which all students living on Grounds will be tested at least once every nine days. Students living off Grounds may still be selected for prevalence testing.

While some students at the University have experienced difficulties accessing testing through Student Health, Virginia Tech sophomore Briana Hawley said that she hasn’t had much difficulty getting tested. Hawley said that she got tested for COVID-19 last week — after calling without having any symptoms — and found the process painless. 

“It literally took like less than 45 minutes to do the whole thing,” Hawley said. “It was super easy. I didn't have any problems.”

D’Auria said that she thinks increased testing could have helped James Madison get ahead of the outbreak that occurred during the first week of classes.

“There definitely wasn’t enough testing,” D’Auria said. “I feel like testing could have saved a lot of people from getting it and like spreading it because if they knew they would have quarantined.”

James Madison has since implemented a mandatory surveillance testing program through which 300 individuals are tested weekly, with a focus on the on-campus student population. D’Auria said that she has not been selected for surveillance testing yet, though one of her suitemates has. The school has also established a testing site that administers approximately 1,000 tests per week to students and community members, regardless of symptoms.

Running out of quarantine and isolation housing, relocating on-campus students

Several universities have struggled to maintain enough quarantine and isolation housing, prompting them to take action in order to create more space.

At James Madison, students living on campus who test positive for COVID-19 are moved to isolation housing either on campus or in local hotels. As of Friday, the university reported having 467 available quarantine beds. Earlier in the semester, however, James Madison almost ran out of quarantine space — a contributing factor to the school’s shutdown. After shutting down, the university expanded its quarantine and isolation capacity by renting out space in at least four local hotels.

Following a similar rise in cases within the first few weeks of the semester, Virginia Tech also quickly realized that its original 172 quarantine spaces would not be enough to accommodate sick students living on campus. To create more room, the university relocated the 70 residents of East Eggleston Hall and refunded the students 20 percent of their housing to compensate for the inconvenience and moving expenses.

The University similarly relocated hundreds of students in order to create more quarantine and isolation housing just two weeks before the delayed move-in of on-Grounds students. Following the announcement, residents of the International Residential College, Malone and Weedon Houses, Johnson and Shea House were given 24 hours to decide whether to have their housing reassigned or remain off-Grounds.

As of Monday, the University’s COVID tracker reports that 4 percent of quarantine space is currently occupied, while 2 percent of isolation space is occupied. 

A remote semester: Collegiate academics during the pandemic

At the University, approximately 27 percent of classes offer an in-person component — this predominantly remote semester has presented difficulties for students who have a lack of reliable internet access. In light of the unusual semester, some professors have chosen to restructure midterm examinations and the University also announced Oct. 9 that it is offering an opt-in credit/general credit/no credit system this fall.

Kennedy said that she isn’t sure whether she’s going to use the credit/general credit/no credit system this fall because at this point in the semester, she has no idea what her grades are going to look like. Still, Kennedy said that she was glad that the University announced the change because it will allow students who are taking care of family members or struggling with other COVID-19--related issues more flexibility. 

Unlike the University, Virginia Tech hasn’t announced a change to its grading system yet, though Hawley said some students are hoping for them to do so. 

Hawley also said that academics have been much more challenging this semester than in the past, particularly since she is so isolated from classmates and professors.

“It's kind of rough I'd say,” Hawley said. “It’s a lot more lonely to just be doing class on your own.”

Kennedy said that she has also been struggling with online classes and exams because she can’t focus and tends to rush through them. Since the semester is shorter than usual, Kennedy said that it also feels like all of her assignments and tests coincide with one another.

“It feels like I’m doing school in a vacuum where I’m all by myself and I’m just kind of doing the work and seeing these people through a screen,” Kennedy said. 

For Henry, remote instruction has proven to be somewhat advantageous when studying for exams because she can go back and watch recordings of class after missing information. Henry said that she does, however, have one small class that periodically meets in person in a large lecture hall. 

Athletics departments see budgets plummet

College sports effectively came to a halt last March when the pandemic first hit and students were sent home — since returning this fall, athletic departments in Virginia have tried to strike a balance between maintaining public safety and allowing sports teams to play.

At the University, only families of coaching staff and athletes are permitted to attend home games, and all fall Olympic sports are playing a modified schedule. As of Oct. 26, 89 student-athletes and staff have tested positive for COVID-19.

Due to the financial fallout resulting from the cancellation of the 2020 March Madness tournament and spring sporting events, some athletic departments — including Virginia Athletics and William & Mary Athletics — opted to cut salaries of senior leadership and/or coaches in anticipation of a decrease in revenue. 

Even after cutting salaries and instituting a hiring freeze, William & Mary Athletics cut seven of its 23 varsity programs due to operating and financial challenges caused by the pandemic, a decision that impacted 118 student-athletes and 13 coaches. Men’s and women’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s swimming, men’s indoor and outdoor track and field and volleyball will be permitted to compete for one more season before their programs are terminated at the end of the 2020-21 academic year.

“This is a wrenching decision,” President Katherine Rowe, Provost Peggy Agouris and Director of Athletics Samantha Huge wrote in an open letter to the William & Mary community. “William & Mary Athletics will emerge with a sustainable, nationally competitive program for our student-athletes. Without this decision, we would not be in a position to achieve those goals moving forward.”

The cut prompted a petition urging the administration to reverse the decision, which has garnered over 21,000 signatures so far. Hughes recently resigned amid the controversy. 

Old Dominion University also cut its wrestling program in April, effective immediately. 

Looking ahead to the spring semester

So far, Virginia Tech, James Madison and the University have canceled spring break, opting instead to give students various days off throughout the semester instead of allowing students to leave for a week-long break.

Looking ahead to the spring semester, D’Auria said that she hopes her peers make good decisions next semester so that a shutdown doesn’t happen again. 

“I hope people are making good decisions now so that we don't have what happened, you know, a month ago happen again,” D’Auria said. “It makes like life very difficult for me and a lot of other people who live very far away, and it also ruins the college experience.”

Kennedy said that while she wasn’t shocked by U.Va.’s decision to cancel spring break, she does appreciate that students will have some days off throughout the semester to decompress, especially since this semester has been so difficult.

“This semester kind of felt like you were running a marathon, but a really fast marathon,” Kennedy said. “It’s not really possible but we’re forced to do it anyway.”

Despite the craziness of going to college in a pandemic, Kennedy said that she is still looking forward to when life returns to normal, whenever that may be.

“The moment when we can go back to this packed stadium with everybody putting their arms around each other, singing ‘The Good Ol’ Song’ and cheering for the football team, I think that’s going to be such a cool moment,” Kennedy said. “I’m going to be so much more grateful for it than I would have if this hadn’t happened.”

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