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U.Va. administration address election security, student well-being and spring semester at town hall

Other topics of discussion included COVID-19 safety, testing and athletics

During an hour-long town hall for parents Friday, University President Jim Ryan and other members of administration discussed how the fall semester has progressed as well as challenges the University faces heading into the spring semester.

Ryan spoke to parents about the challenges that students have faced on Grounds this semester while expressing that he was proud of how the majority of students have been responsible in trying to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“Even with all of the changes, all the students I’ve spoken to are just happy to be here — happy to have the opportunity to be here and to see their friends and to participate in the life of the University,” Ryan said.

Ryan acknowledged that students have faced feelings of isolation and stress over the course of the semester and said that the University is working to bring more students into classrooms in the spring, although the course of the virus has a significant impact on the practicality of doing so. Roughly 27 percent of classes this semester are in person. 

“We’ve received good feedback from faculty who taught in person, and as we plan for the spring, I’m encouraged that a number of faculty who were planning to teach online have asked to teach in person,” Ryan said.

Ryan also briefly addressed plans for Final Exercises, which will be announced no later than March 15, 2021 for both the Class of 2020 and Class of 2021.

“It will turn entirely on what’s happening with the virus, both locally and nationally, and what kind of guidance we are getting from the Virginia Department of Health and the [Center for Disease Control] on the advisability or even the permissibility of large gatherings,” Ryan said.

Ryan also talked about the University’s interaction with bars in Charlottesville and on the Corner, stating that University leaders have spoken with the owners of Corner bars on “a number of occasions” and that the issue of potential COVID-19 spread at bars is on the top of many University administrators’ minds.

“We continue to monitor and continue to point out to both local health officials and the bar owners just how risky bars are just inherently, especially when people are indoors,” Ryan said.

After Ryan finished delivering his remarks, the meeting shifted to a question-and-answer session between parents and University leadership. University administrators answered questions both in the Zoom chat box and out loud, though the later were pre-selected questions from the audience.

Athletics

Athletics Director Carla Williams fielded a series of questions about football, basketball and the health of the University’s student-athletes.

Williams confirmed that, due to Virginia's current COVID-19 guidelines, students will remain unable to attend football games for the foreseeable future. Currently, the University only allows 1,000 people to watch the game from inside the stadium. Attendees are limited to the families of student-athletes and each team’s coaching staff.

“We are monitoring it every week and are hopeful the restrictions may change to allow for more fans at football [games], so we’re watching it closely,” Williams said.

Monday, Virginia Athletics reported just two positive COVID-19 test results over the past week out of 1,038 tests administered — a 0.2 percent positivity rate. Both the positive tests were among staff.

Williams said that the University has not yet received clarification from the Commonwealth on attendance at basketball games. Williams said that out of Virginia’s 27 varsity sports, basketball is going to be one of the most difficult to handle due to its indoor location and close audience proximity to athletes.

Williams stated that the University will work with the Atlantic Coast Conference to try and create uniformity among the school’s policies.

“We hope because there are fewer student-athletes in basketball that we will have room for fans and students,” Williams said. 

Williams said that like many other students, student athletes are struggling this semester. Williams cited the lack of a regular social life and the threat of quarantine and isolation as potential reasons for their struggle, and she noted that the athletics department has stepped up counseling opportunities for its athletes.

“They are doing well considering the circumstances,” Williams said.

Election security

Chief of Police Tim Longo received a question regarding the University’s plans when it comes to any potential protests or unrest following the results — or lack thereof — on Election Day.

Longo stated that the University is actively collaborating with local police, Virginia state police and the local FBI office to monitor and examine threats to the local community’s safety. In addition, Longo said that the University is prepared for any potential mass demonstrations or protests that may result from the election.

“We’ve established a command post here on Grounds that actually was activated this morning,” Longo said. 

In an email statement to The Cavalier Daily, Longo said that command posts are frequently established when there are events on and around Grounds. 

“One important aspect of the command post is to establish a unified way in which to better coordinate the deployment of resources and to more effectively communicate throughout an event,” Longo said.

Longo said that students should expect to see “a greater level of visibility” with regards to police officers, RMC ambassadors and security. At this time, Longo says that the University has received no credible or actionable intelligence that suggests the safety of the University or the region is at risk.

Longo also fielded a question on the role of University Police in enforcing COVID-19 restrictions, something that Longo said they cannot enforce criminally.

“What we do is we engage the students — we work hard to educate them and remind them what the public health guidelines are,”  Longo said. “When there are serious infractions like large house parties or large gatherings where students are without masks and are not appropriately distant from each other, we’ll make referrals to the Office of the Dean of Students.”

COVID-19 Testing

Pace Lochte, assistant vice president of economic development, answered questions about plans to test students as they leave Grounds for Thanksgiving and as they return to Charlottesville for classes in February. 

Lochte said that all students will have the opportunity to be tested before they leave Grounds for Thanksgiving and winter break. 

“We will be sending out information to those off-Grounds students early next week on how they can get a test prior to their departure for Thanksgiving,” Lochte said.

Students living on Grounds will continue to be tested every nine days and will not receive an extra test before they leave for Thanksgiving. Lochte emphasized that students should be extra vigilant before they return home since a test is “just a point in time,” meaning that students could potentially get the virus after they are tested.

Student Health Director Christopher Holstege also discussed the University’s testing plans. Holstege explained that the University initially focused on testing students living on Grounds because of their unique housing situation.

“That’s where you saw some of our peers fail and have to close down because it spread so quickly through the large housing unit,” Holstege explained.

Holstege says that the University’s numbers are currently “well-controlled and down” — as of Thursday’s update to the Return to Grounds COVID-19 tracker, there were 42 active cases of COVID-19 in the University community with five cases being reported on Thursday. The average number of cases reported each day this week is three, down from seven the previous week.

Mental health

Holstege also answered questions about reported long lines for students to receive appointments at Counseling and Psychological Services.

“The wait lists are shorter than they’ve ever been,” Holstege said. “We’ve more than doubled the counselors and psychiatric staff over the last five years.” 

Holstege said that one of the benefits of the pandemic is that it has pushed CAPS to launch telecounseling and telepsychiatry options. Holstege also emphasized that there is never a wait for urgent appointments.

“There’s never a wait in a crisis,” Holstege said. “When we talk about waits, we are sometimes 

talking about things like, ‘I have a relationship problem, [so] I want to meet with a counselor.’ It may take a week to get in.”

Community relations

Kevin G. McDonald, vice president for diversity, equity, inclusion and community partnerships, discussed the University’s relationship with the Charlottesville and Albemarle communities.

McDonald said that the imposition of strict public health guidelines helped to alleviate many of the communities’ concerns about reopening during the pandemic.

“We’ve continued to work hard to engage the community in ways that I think allow them to feel like we’re creating a partnership,” McDonald said.

Ryan also addressed concerns from the community in his opening remarks.

“There were many who said it was a bad idea to bring students back to Grounds and many who doubted that students could handle the responsibility,” Ryan said. “Part of our decision to bring students back to Grounds was we had more faith in them than that. That faith has been well placed.”

Spring classes and grading systems

Ian Baucom, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, was responsible for answering questions about what the University’s classrooms will look like in the spring semester. Baucom said that getting more students into physical classrooms is one of the University’s top priorities, although its number one concern remains safety.

“We’re working actively with all of our faculty to increase the number of in-person courses,” Baucom said. 

Baucom said that the University is continuing to look at numerous options for getting students learning on Grounds during the spring semester, including having in-person discussion sections, rotating students in larger lectures and opening smaller study rooms.

Baucom also addressed concerns from a parent about having more classes be live instead of asynchronous. While Baucom sympathized with these concerns, he noted that students are no longer operating in just one time zone.

“We have students scattered across time zones, from the West Coast in California to students who are in Shanghai,” Baucom said. “We are teaching in 24 timezones now rather than one, so having that pre-recorded material is important for access and availability for students who can’t be on Grounds.”

Baucom also took on a question about the grading system for the spring semester, a decision he said should be coming from Provost Liz Magill “quite soon.” This fall, a student-organized petition calling for a default credit/general credit/no credit grading system received more than 1,400 signatures and precipitated a shift to an opt-in credit/general credit/no credit system. 

“It was very helpful for us this fall to hear from so many students. We spent a lot of time listening to students and getting their feedback,” Baucom said.

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