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Over 80 percent of U.Va. students feel safe returning to Grounds for spring semester, CD survey estimates

Many worry that students will become complacent with University policy and have large gatherings despite increasing COVID-19 cases

With 116 active cases of COVID-19 already in the University community, students have mixed feelings about the safety of returning to Grounds next week.
With 116 active cases of COVID-19 already in the University community, students have mixed feelings about the safety of returning to Grounds next week.

With a majority of students returning to Grounds next week for the start of spring classes amid the ongoing pandemic, The Cavalier Daily surveyed undergraduate students on what they hope the upcoming semester will entail.

Over half of all respondents said having more in-person classes is important to them while around 47 percent of respondents are satisfied with the University’s current hybrid model of instruction with classes conducted through a mix of in-person and online learning. Nearly 88 percent of respondents indicated that their mental wellbeing was negatively impacted during the past fall semester, and about 12 percent of respondents said they do not feel safe returning to Charlottesville this spring.

The survey, which ran from Dec. 14 to Dec. 28, garnered 930 anonymous responses from undergraduate students in the Class of 2021 through the Class of 2024. Of all respondents, roughly 82 percent lived in the Charlottesville area last fall.

Students’ safety concerns about spring

With 130 active cases of COVID-19 already in the University community, students have mixed feelings about the safety of returning to Grounds next week. Across Virginia, the number of coronavirus cases continues to increase at record levels, with more than 6,000 cases per day on average during the third week of January, placing Virginia in the top 10 nationally for cases per capita. 

While the majority of survey respondents feel safe about living in the Charlottesville area this spring, around 3.5 percent of respondents “strongly disagree” with this sentiment. An additional 8 percent disagree or somewhat disagree.

Many respondents cited the recent spike in cases in the University community as a reason for feeling unsafe while others believe students are becoming tired of following health and safety restrictions and may ignore the University’s implemented gathering policies as a result.

“I'm concerned that the pressure cooker that everyone has been in for the past 10-11 months is going to explode,” second-year Engineering student Lauren Askew said. “Everyone is tired of being stuck at home or in dorms and apartments. Everyone is tired of living through ‘unprecedented times.’ It's hard to be a perfectly responsible citizen for 7,000+ hours — and that's what we've been told to do.”

The University has implemented a couple of new policies for the spring semester, including weekly mandatory prevalence testing for all students living in the Charlottesville area and stricter limitations on gatherings. No more than six students will be able to gather in groups between Jan. 19 and Feb. 14, and those who violate this policy will be subject to disciplinary action.

Students must also comply with Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order requiring individuals to stay at home between midnight and 5 a.m. unless for necessary travel. The statewide policy — which expires Jan. 31 but could be extended if deemed necessary to curb the spread of the virus — also requires bars and restaurants to close at midnight and bans on-site alcohol sales after 10 p.m.

Last fall, Dean of Students Allen Groves told The Cavalier Daily that there was a “slippage” in adherence to the University’s 10-person gathering limit towards the end of the semester, though he had a generally positive impression of student compliance with public health guidelines. There were over 1,300 positive COVID-19 cases in the University community last semester, none of which were linked to in-person instruction, according to University administrators.

Caitlin Cimons, who graduated early from the School of Education in December, believes that the upcoming semester could present more challenges than the last, especially in how the University enforces its gathering policies.

“I’m more concerned about the spring semester than the fall semester because once the weather starts to get warm, I think we’re going to see a lot of people going out more — wineries, outdoor bars on the Corner, Mad Bowl, etc.,” Cimons said. “Based on how students spent their time in Charlottesville last spring semester once classes were moved online, I really don’t see much changing, especially since students are tired of dealing with the pandemic and fourth years [are] itching to spend their last moments in Charlottesville with their friends.”

Several students interviewed by The Cavalier Daily said they saw pictures of their peers on social media gathering at bars and Halloween parties last semester without masks and in small spaces — adding to the concern that some students are not taking the pandemic seriously. Others expressed concern about mask compliance in dorms and student spaces.

“What concerns me most continues to be the reluctance toward mask-wearing I saw in the first-year dorms at unsanctioned gatherings,” first-year College student Grant GianGrasso said. “Even if people unfortunately choose to break with distancing guidelines, I'd hope that they can do the bare minimum and cover their faces. And I'll admit that U.Va. hasn't done a stellar job enforcing their policies, but rather depends on the goodwill of the majority to stop the spread.”

Per University policy, faculty, students and staff can report noncompliance with the University’s health and safety protocols on the Return to Grounds website, while community members can report apparent violations using the Community Concerns Reporting Portal. Nearly all reports of noncompliance are referred to the University Judiciary Committee, which imposes sanctions ranging from essays to interim suspensions.

Mental health challenges

Nearly 45 percent of survey respondents “strongly agreed” that their mental well-being was negatively impacted by the pandemic last fall. An additional 43 percent agreed or somewhat agreed to this sentiment while around 7 percent disagreed in some form and 5 percent are neutral.

First-year College student Katherine Larson cited the added stress of transitioning to college with limited opportunities for social interaction as a source of mental health challenges.

“I struggled with mental health in the fall, particularly toward the beginning of the semester as I was still in the beginning stages of transitioning to a new social circle, and dealing with the stress of the pandemic,” Larson said. 

She found events like the Lighting of the Lawn scavenger hunt as helpful ways to navigate Grounds as a new student because it encouraged her to leave her dorm room and engage in a fun bonding activity with friends.

Several students who were interviewed agreed that social activities can help relieve the stress and burnout associated with schoolwork amidst the pandemic. Fourth-year College student Meghana Malapaka suggested that professors could incorporate more small group activities into lesson plans or the University could sponsor more virtual activities for students to alleviate feelings of loneliness or isolation. 

“Something about leaving your house and breaking up the monotony of Zoom call after Zoom call as well seeing people's faces — even [if] it's behind a mask — definitely seems to help mentally,” third-year Engineering student Kalman Buterbaugh said.

Brielle Dotson, a fourth-year College student, suggested that the University could even provide students with free pizza or gift cards on random days throughout the semester.

“Programming has the ability to help people still feel connected to and cared by a community,” Dotson said. “I feel like my connection to the overall University has faded throughout this year.”

Others called on the University to lower the financial burden of tuition, encourage professors to not assign work over scheduled breaks and increase the accessibility and availability of Counseling and Psychological Services.

Instead of having a traditional weeklong spring break, the University will give students four days off throughout the spring semester — called “break days” — intended to allow students to rest and minimize travel to and from Charlottesville. The break days are scheduled for Feb. 17, March 9, March 29 and April 15 — all weekdays.

Over 62 percent of survey respondents believe that these four days off are an inadequate substitute for spring break.

“I know that spring semesters are shorter than fall semesters in any given year, but to have an even shorter semester this year scares me a bit,” first-year Architecture student Everett Vereen. “I've barely adjusted to being in college — and in completely wild circumstances, too. I don't see the random days off helping alleviate stress that much cause I'm just going to procrastinate another day in most cases.”

Having a ‘college experience’

When the University reopened last fall, it did it in part to allow students to not miss out on the “college experience” despite the unique circumstances of the pandemic. According to the survey, over 68 percent of respondents did not feel they received this experience, with around 29 percent strongly disagreeing with this sentiment.

“My concerns are the learning environment,” third-year McIntire student Everett Ward said. “Last semester I lived in the Charlottesville community but did not feel as though I was included in the U.Va. community. I felt my learning experience was significantly harmed because of the virtual learning environment when I was told classes were most likely to be in person. I felt deceived and as though I paid the same amount in tuition for a much worse experience.”

Approximately 27 percent of classes offered an in-person component last semester.

Cimons added that online classes do not get easier the longer students do it. Despite having sufficient resources to learn effectively, Cimons said she was a lot less likely to meet with professors during office hours — a key component of the college experience — because of the constant virtual environment.

“I couldn’t just walk into a professor's office when I had free time on Grounds,” Cimons said. “I was sitting in my bedroom for hours straight, which affected my focus, and the learning experience is a lot more challenging online.”

Additionally, over 59 percent of survey respondents agreed, strongly agreed or somewhat agreed that contracting COVID-19 or fear of contracting the virus negatively impacted their ability to complete schoolwork during the fall semester. Around 53 percent of respondents said they had a friend or multiple friends test positive for COVID-19.

Yet, the majority of respondents who lived in Charlottesville last semester — around 90 percent — still felt happy about their decision to return, with roughly 42 percent strongly agreeing with this sentiment. Of the respondents who stayed home last semester, almost 83 percent agreed in some form that they were happy with their decision, though 34 percent expressed being unable to learn effectively from home.

Compliance with University policies

Around 72 percent of survey respondents agreed, strongly agreed or somewhat agreed that the University should keep the same COVID-19 policies and restrictions from the fall semester in place for the spring. Majority of respondents — 49.5 percent — also reported that the University’s policies were “just right.”

“I do feel safe returning to Grounds this month because of the great work U.Va. has done in implementing helpful precautions, such as regular testing for students, wastewater testing in dorms and offering quarantine/isolation for students who may have been exposed to the virus or who have symptoms,” Larson said. “I was also on Grounds in the fall, and although I was still anxious about the virus, it was very reassuring to see all that U.Va. was doing to stop the spread.”

However, the majority of respondents — roughly 76 percent — said they gathered in groups of five or more in the fall, with 7 percent doing so everyday, despite the University’s temporary ban on gatherings of more than five people. Over 45 percent of respondents said they gathered in groups of 10 or more and around 16 percent said they gathered in groups of 20 or more. Additionally, 56 percent of respondents said they always made an effort to avoid large crowds, 32 percent said they did so most of the time, 10 percent said sometimes and 2 percent said they never made an effort to avoid large crowds.

About 70 percent of respondents indicated that they always wore a mask outside their home while nearly 27 percent said they did so most of the time, 3 percent said sometimes and 0.5 percent said they never wore a mask.

Just over 50 percent of respondents said they self-quarantined when they arrived to Charlottesville, which was required in the fall and will be once again in the spring. Of those respondents who were possibly exposed to someone with COVID-19, around 66 percent said they always quarantined for the CDC-recommended time frame of 14 days, while 13 percent said they did so most of the time, 7 percent said sometimes and around 14 percent said they never quarantined for 14 days after a potential exposure.

The majority of respondents also said it was easy to receive a COVID-19 test — with around 30 percent strongly agreeing with this sentiment, 32 percent agreeing and 16 percent somewhat agreeing. Students who lived in on-Grounds housing were supposed to be tested on a regular basis, or least once every nine days by either mid-nasal swabs or saliva screenings. Additional students living in the Charlottesville area were also contacted at random for prevalence testing via saliva screenings throughout the semester. Around 10 percent of survey respondents said they were never selected for prevalence testing while 22 percent were selected once and over 67 percent were selected more than once.

Survey respondents had mixed reviews on the University’s Hoos Health Check app, with around 52 percent indicating that the app was not useful. Students were asked to self-report their symptoms daily on the app — although reporting was never tracked or required. Additionally, around 60 percent of respondents felt the University’s COVID tracker was a useful resource.

Spring plans and lingering questions

Roughly 29 percent of the respondents who did not live in the Charlottesville area last fall are now planning to return in the spring, though the majority — 57 percent — who remained home are still planning to do so this semester. Of those who spent the fall semester in Charlottesville, roughly 89 percent are planning to stay in the area while over 8 percent are not and 2 percent are unsure.

With the COVID-19 vaccine rollout underway across the nation and in the University community, many students are feeling hopeful and reassured about their safety. The University has not yet announced plans for when or how students and faculty will receive the vaccine. 

“I think as more of the community gets vaccinated, especially those who are immunocompromised, things will start to look up,” third-year College student Matt Carswell said. “One of my personal concerns is U.Va.’s ability to vaccinate its students … Obviously those who are more vulnerable to COVID should and will get it first, but I do wonder how U.Va. will tackle the logistics of vaccinating students down the road.”

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