Dean of Students Allen Groves sat down for an interview Wednesday with The Cavalier Daily to discuss student compliance with public health guidelines and community building amid the pandemic.
Generally, Groves said that he thinks students have observed the University’s health and safety guidelines — including mask-wearing, limiting travel and adhering to gathering restrictions — this semester.
Though Groves acknowledged that the decision to lower the gathering limit to five people earlier in the semester was “frustrating to some people,” he said the restriction was necessary in order to decrease the number of COVID-19 cases. According to the University’s COVID-19 tracker, the community saw a significant decrease in COVID-19 cases following the announcement, which was made Sept. 22. The gathering restriction has since been increased to 10.
In a Nov. 15 email, Groves urged students to “recognize some recent slippage” in their commitment to the University’s COVID-19 policies. In particular, he pointed to large weekend gatherings along Rugby Road, Gordon Avenue and at a local winery in Albemarle County.
“Now, the last couple of weekends have been challenging,” Groves said. “But if you ask for my overall assessment, it would be that students have largely complied and that I appreciate the fact that they were willing to make that sacrifice for the community.”
On the occasional weekend night, Groves will take a walk throughout the Rugby Road area “to get a feel for what’s going on” — something he’s done prior to the pandemic and throughout his 14 years as Dean of Students. Groves characterized his interactions with students while doing this as largely friendly. Typically, he said he asks students to put on masks or social distance.
“There’s no stealth involved,” Groves said. “In some ways, there’s a lightness to it — I try to keep the focus, the way it should be, that I trust students, I respect them as adults and I’m just trying to help.”
Any reports of noncompliance with University COVID-19 protocol are initially fielded by the dean on call, who gather further information about the incident before documenting the case in a confidential database. University faculty, students and staff can report noncompliance with health and safety guidelines on the Return to Grounds website, while community members can report apparent violations using the Community Concerns Reporting Portal.
Violations that prove particularly egregious are escalated to Groves himself. Community members oftentimes report violations directly to Groves, too.
“I think [last] weekend was the largest number that were sent directly to me by people in the community,” Groves said.
From there, Groves reaches out to the individuals involved to better understand the situation and either issues a warning or a referral to the University Judiciary Committee, which has handled sanctioning for nearly all reports of noncompliance. The sanctions imposed by the UJC, with whom Groves is in constant contact, range from essays to interim suspensions.
Still, Groves said he has had to unilaterally issue interim suspensions for COVID-19 noncompliance but was unable to specify how many due to concerns for confidentiality. However, those suspensions only remain in place until UJC hears the case and determines the final sanction, at which point Groves’ interim suspension dissolves.
“I’ve had a couple of cases that I considered relatively significant in the COVID environment,” Groves said. “I thought that the sanction [UJC] imposed was really well considered, and not only something that an administrator would have done … but I thought it was perfectly appropriate.”
Ahead of the spring semester, Groves said that he is “very concerned” that students may stop complying with the University’s health and safety regulations in the spring due to a combination of fatigue and traveling home for winter break to places where students may not be required to follow the same rules as in Charlottesville.
Groves also said that he’s heard some students say that because they have already contracted COVID-19, they don’t need to worry about following the University’s rules anymore.
“That’s not the answer,” Groves said. “All of those things combined make me very concerned about when we return in [February], and I suspect that we may end up having to take the approach that we took in early September, which is a much stricter compliance regime than we would normally do at U.Va.”
Groves said that as of now, the plan is to keep the 10-person gathering limit in place throughout the winter, though it may be revised either up or down as case numbers warrant in the spring. Though the spring semester officially begins in February, Groves said that he is aware that off-Grounds students may move in earlier and acknowledged that the country could be in a completely different place in dealing with the pandemic two months from now. For those reasons, Groves said that students can expect communication from University administration in December about health and safety regulations so that whenever students return to Charlottesville, they are aware of what rules they should be following.
In addition to monitoring compliance with health and safety guidelines, Groves said that he has also spent time listening to students and parents about their experiences this fall — feedback that he characterized as a “mixed bag.”
He praised in particular the efforts of Resident Advisors, who have forged a sense of community on Grounds even within the boundaries of public health regulations. On top of this, Groves acknowledged that RAs are charged with COVID-19 enforcement. In prior semesters, RA responsibilities have included fielding underage drinking and noise complaints — against the backdrop of the pandemic, however, RAs have become responsible for managing a public health crisis.
“At the same time, I think that the wonderful role they have always played in trying to build community and in trying to support students individually, is more important now than ever,” Groves said.
Groves said that there’s “no question” that students who have returned to Grounds are experiencing higher feelings of isolation and loneliness this fall amid the erasure of organic ways of socializing, like meeting new friends in lecture or the dining hall.
“I think that students themselves have tried to to say ‘okay, I know it’s not going to happen as naturally, as normal, so what can I do to try to make that happen within the guidelines?’” Groves said. “But at the end of the day, there’s no substitute for some of the things we’ve lost.”
To combat this problem next semester, Groves said that he has asked the University Programs Council to brainstorm how they could hold safe events in the spring during which students can connect with one another — many of these plans, however, depends on what the pandemic looks like two months from now.
“I think the lessons learned from me is that we’ve got to be very flexible,” Groves said.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that Groves said there are no plans to enter the spring semester with a gathering limit. In an email to The Cavalier Daily, Groves clarified that he meant there are no plans to change the current 10-person gathering limit this winter, though it may be revised depending on case numbers ahead of the spring semester.