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U.Va. and COVID-19: A year of cancelations, cases and continuous adjustments

After students were asked not to return on March 11, 2020, University community members were forced to adapt to online courses, testing requirements and limited social interaction

<p>When spring break first began the weekend of March 7, 2020, students left Charlottesville for destinations nationwide, many of them unaware that it would be the last time they stepped foot on Grounds for more than five months.</p>

When spring break first began the weekend of March 7, 2020, students left Charlottesville for destinations nationwide, many of them unaware that it would be the last time they stepped foot on Grounds for more than five months.

When the University first brought back students studying abroad in Italy and canceled all outgoing study abroad programs last March, it turned out to be just the start of a brutal pandemic that would take the lives of over 500,000 Americans in one year. Students would be sent home in March 2020 only to come back five months later subject to masking requirements, gathering limits and public health guidelines previously unheard of — it was a new normal.

Now as we approach the one year mark of students’ departures on March 11, 2020, the University community is just recovering from its largest spike in COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began after over 700 cases were reported the week of Feb. 15. With vaccine distribution providing hope for the end of the pandemic in the coming months, it’s important to reflect on the biggest milestones and challenges the University community faced this year.

The virus escalates as students are on spring break

When spring break first began the weekend of March 7, 2020, students left Charlottesville for destinations nationwide, many of them unaware that it would be the last time they stepped foot on Grounds for more than five months. At the time, most students wrote off coronavirus as a distant threat — though the first U.S. case was identified on Jan. 21, there had only been one case reported in the state of Virginia when spring break began.

That didn’t stop the situation from escalating quickly. Just three days before the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 crisis a pandemic March 11, University President Jim Ryan sent a community-wide email detailing steps the University was taking to mitigate the spread of the virus, which had then infected eight people in the Commonwealth. 

“At this point in time, we plan for students to return to Grounds and to resume classes, but we will be making some modifications to mitigate against the risk of exposure to and transmission of the virus,” Ryan said, which proved to be the first of many detailing the University's response to the pandemic. 

That plan changed when Ryan emailed again just three days later, this time announcing the extension of spring break and the suspension of in-person instruction until at least April 5, asking students to return home and stay at home if possible. The following day, Governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency after 17 Virginians tested positive for the virus, and the University later reinforced its request for students to leave Grounds following student gatherings on the Corner that weekend. That week, the University’s athletic department also suspended all activity following the cancelation of the ACC men’s basketball tournament.

On March 16, 2020 the first University community member tested positive for COVID-19. A second community member would test positive for the virus March 18, and on March 19, the first student contracted COVID-19. Amidst all this, the University notified students March 18 of its decision on the rest of the semester more than two weeks ahead of time — all classes would be held virtually for the foreseeable future.

“It is exceedingly unlikely, based on all that we know at this point, that this virus will have abated by the end of April,” the email said. “We realize and regret that these additional steps will cause more disappointment and call for more sacrifice, but we see no other way to do our part to help confront this public health crisis.”

In the same email, the University canceled Final Exercises for the Class of 2020 — making it the first time the celebration would not be held as planned since its start in 1829.

“Graduating isn’t easy, but not graduating is even harder,” said then-Fourth-year Batten student Hannah Semmes.

A virtual degree conferral featuring Yo-Yo Ma and Dave Matthews would be held for the class in June. As of March 2021, any in-person celebration for the Class of 2020 has been delayed until May 2022, and Final Exercises for the Class of 2021 have been canceled as planned.

Students and faculty adapt to remote instruction amid the pandemic

And so began more than a year of mostly online instruction. 

As students and faculty alike navigated the challenges of mastering Zoom, calls for changes to the regular grading system surfaced as individuals reported concern over lack of Internet access, educational quality and job security while studying at home during a pandemic. For international students who returned, this transition was uniquely challenging. Not only did these students have to adapt to often-stricter lockdowns in their home countries, but they also had to stay up into the early hours of the morning — sometimes even to 3 or 4 a.m. — to be available for synchronous classes.

“My day of classes usually starts after dinner these days,” then-first-year College student Ria Kharosekar said. “On most days I get done around 2 a.m. It was fine for the first week after I got back because I was still jet lagged, but now it’s definitely really strange.”

Following a petition that garnered over 5,000 signatures, University Provost Liz Magill announced the adoption of a credit/no credit grading system March 18, later adding a general credit option for students whose grades fell below the grade minimum for receiving credit but above that of no credit.

To provide first-generation, low-income, international and working students with necessary resources as the pandemic progressed, Student Council launched a mutual aid network through which students could request up to $100 in funding. U.Va. Mutual Aid is still operating today, and it has distributed over $36,000 to students to date.

After several weeks of uncertainty regarding how and when they would collect their belongings, students living on Grounds were finally permitted to return between May 4 and 24 to pack up their rooms and move out of residence halls using staggered pickup times and social distancing procedures. At the time, it was unclear when — or if — students would be able to return in the fall. 

To make this decision, the University created the Fall 2020 Committee — a group made up of administrators, faculty and one student tasked with providing recommendations on the upcoming semester. After just over a month of deliberation, on May 28, the University announced its intention to begin the semester as usual, with in-person options and classes ending before Thanksgiving. Despite nationwide uncertainty surrounding when the pandemic would be over, one thing was clear — the University was planning for students to come back to Charlottesville.

“This fall will not be a normal fall, even with some students back on Grounds and some classes being held in person,” the email said. “There inevitably will be greater risk in having students return, and we will be placing a good deal of trust in our students to look out for the safety and well-being not just of each other but of our faculty, staff, and community members.”

Students return to Grounds for a fall semester like no other

After a summer filled with protests and a nationwide reckoning on race, students began to plan their returns to Grounds. The University required all students coming back to Charlottesville to partake in pre-arrival testing, which revealed 36 positive cases before the start of the fall semester. To keep track of cases over the course of the fall, the University launched the first of three versions of its COVID-19 tracker Aug. 27, featuring daily case counts and quarantine and isolation space occupancy. 

In response to a national and local increase in COVID-19 cases, the University announced Aug. 4 that it was delaying the start of in-person instruction and move-in for students living on Grounds by two weeks.

The country then watched as numerous clusters of cases were identified among students at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, causing the school to desert its plans for in-person instruction Aug. 17. Just an hour away at James Madison University, over 1,000 students tested positive for the virus within one week, leading the university to do the same as UNC. 

Coupled with rising cases nationwide, these outbreaks at neighboring universities generated calls from some student organizations — such as Student Council and Young Democratic Socialists of America — for the University to abandon its plans for in-person instruction and not allow students living on-Grounds to return. Despite pushback, senior University leadership confirmed in a community-wide email Aug. 28 that in-person instruction would begin as planned Sept. 8.

“There are no easy answers here, and there are no risk-free paths,” the email read. “While we can’t expect to persuade all who disagree, we can tell you that we have listened to all perspectives, have given this a great deal of thought, and are making what we believe is the best decision at this moment in time. And that is the decision to give this our very best effort.”

Just days before the start of move-in, the University notified residents of the International Residential College, Johnson, Malone and Weedon Houses and Shea House that their rooms would be converted into isolation and quarantine space for the course of the semester. These residents were given just 24 hours to choose a housing reassignment or live off Grounds.

Students living on Grounds moved into residence halls Sept. 3 through Sept. 6 as many first years hoped to experience some semblance of what it means to be a student at the University. 

“[My parents] decided that the policies were probably good enough, that [the University] was trying hard enough to where I didn’t think that we were going to have a massive outbreak,” first-year College student Leah Boone said to The Cavalier Daily during move in.

What followed students’ arrivals to Charlottesville was a troubling 48-hour period some 10 days later during which four potential outbreaks were identified in first-year residence halls.

The first potential outbreak was identified Sept. 16 when residents of Balz-Dobie were placed under a dorm-wide quarantine for at least 24 hours. The next day, the University selected residents of Lefevre for prevalence testing after wastewater testing indicated a potential outbreak. A day after that, the University reported potential outbreaks in both Kellogg and Echols, and wastewater indicators later identified the presence of a potential outbreak in Hancock on Sept. 22. 

“There was definitely a lot of uncertainty for us students,” first-year College student Joseph Ascoli said.

In response to rising cases within the University community, the University dropped its gathering limit from 15 individuals to five, reinforced the need for mask-wearing and prohibited travel and visitors for at least two weeks. At the time, there were 224 active cases on Grounds.

Throughout the fall, students tried to find alternative ways of enjoying Charlottesville during a pandemic, sought companionship through fostering pets and prioritized mental health. Student groups performed theater on Zoom and overcame limitations to create community virtually. All the while, students conquered the anxieties of living in quarantine and isolation housing and learned to mitigate COVID-19 risks within their daily lives.

Despite the breakouts, the University was able to rapidly expand its testing capacity throughout the fall semester, beginning with the announcement of an asymptomatic and symptomatic testing plan, as well as the development of a saliva testing program and a wastewater testing program. Under the University's first asymptomatic testing program, anywhere from 50 to 150 students were selected daily to report for testing. Following the announcement, however, some students cited difficulties accessing testing while athletes regularly received up to three tests per week. 

By November, the University required all students living on Grounds to report for weekly testing and had expanded its prevalence testing for off-Grounds students. Before Thanksgiving break, University offered pre-departure testing before leaving Charlottesville and encouraged students to remain at home until the beginning of the spring semester. Fall classes officially ended Nov. 24, and all students were required to take finals online in December. Some students, however, did choose to remain in Charlottesville through exams, citing difficulties focusing on finals at home. 

Cases and hospitalizations mount as the start of the spring semester nears 

Following an increase in cases statewide after the Thanksgiving holiday, Northam issued an executive order Dec. 14 limiting in-person gatherings to 10 people and instituting a curfew from between 12 a.m. and 5 a.m. Still, U.Va. Health was able to administer its first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine Dec. 15, signaling a light at the end of the tunnel for hospital workers and staff. 

Despite the hope provided by the start of vaccine distribution, U.Va. Health experienced a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations as the holidays approached and more individuals chose to hold in-person celebrations. As the spring semester neared, cases and hospitalizations still soared across the Commonwealth. 

With staff redeployed to COVID-19 units, other hospital units at U.Va. Health saw staffing shortages. As a result, U.Va. Health instituted a policy Jan. 10 requiring all registered nurses, patient care technicians and certified nursing assistants to pick up extra COVID-19 shifts. To protect the health of patients and hospital workers, the hospital barred visitors to the hospital beginning Jan. 13, returning restrictions it had originally implemented last spring.

A delayed start to the spring semester

The spring semester began Feb. 1, nearly two weeks after the originally scheduled date of Jan. 20. In an effort to limit travel to and from Charlottesville, the University replaced the traditional week-long spring break with four break days scattered throughout the semester. Students also began the semester governed by a six-person gathering limit and a weekly mandatory testing requirement, among other public health guidelines.

Though University administration warned students ahead of the spring semester that its margin for error was narrower than in the fall, after the first two weeks of the semester, there was a steep increase in COVID-19 cases. 

On Feb. 8, the University placed all residents of Gibbons dormitory under a dorm-wide quarantine after identifying 17 positive cases in the building. Three days later, the University confirmed the presence of the B.1.1.7. U.K. variant in the community and extended the six-person gathering limit until conditions improved.

Case numbers took a turn for the worst Feb. 15 when 121 cases were reported in a single day — this more than doubled the previous record of 59 cases Sept. 17, which occurred due to a testing backlog. Then, 229 new cases were reported Feb. 16, shattering Monday’s record by more than 100 cases. As a result of the sharp increase, the University banned all in-person gatherings and encouraged students to restrict movement outside of their residences to essential activities for at least 10 days.

“This is crunch time,” the email said. “If individual members of this community take this seriously for the next 10 days, we will see a decline in cases and a return to a more “normal” spring semester. The alternative is additional consequences, not only for the type of semester we have as a university, but potentially for the health and safety of the people who live, learn, and work at and around U.Va.”

Speculation on social media suggested the increase in cases resulted from in-person elements of Inter-Fraternity Council and Inter-Sorority Council recruitment. The University has maintained that Greek life was not primarily responsible for the increased caseloads, but Dean of Students Allen Groves confirmed that COVID-19 violations have been brought against five fraternities, though he did not specify if any of the violations were related to recruitment events. Both the IFC and ISC have since suspended in-person gatherings due to increased caseloads and reported violations by member organizations.

Cases declined throughout the 10-day period, so the University lifted its ban on in-person gatherings Feb. 26 and returned to a six-person gathering limit, encouraging students to stick to social bubbles. 

Though Ryan has expressed optimism that the University will return to normal operations next fall, it still remains uncertain how and when that will happen. Some students have begun to receive vaccinations and the state recently launched a pre-registration site for Virginia residents. Living in the midst of a pandemic has become the new normal for students, faculty, staff and community members — all that is left to do is mask up, socially distance and wait.

Alexa Clark, Ali Sullivan, Ava MacBlane, Callie Freeman, Carolyn Lane, Erin Rafferty, Harry Farley, Jenn Brice, Kate Bellows, Kate Still, Lauren O’Neil, Lilly Whitner, Lucie Rutherford, Mackenzie Williams, Madison Workman, Maryann Xue, Nayeon Kim, Nicole Freeman, Nik Popli, Omega Ilijevich, Patrick Roney, Raghda Labban, Sevy Van Der Werf, Sierra Martin, Tanvika Vegiraju, Zach Rosenthal and Zoya Zahid — among others — have contributed reporting to our ongoing coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more here.

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