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Class of 2025 arrives on Grounds amid mask mandates and Delta variant concerns

This fall will also mark the first full “normal” year for second and third-year students

<p>&nbsp;In response to rising cases across the Commonwealth, the University reinstated a mask mandate for all individuals inside University properties beginning Aug. 9.</p>

 In response to rising cases across the Commonwealth, the University reinstated a mask mandate for all individuals inside University properties beginning Aug. 9.

This year will mark the first full “normal” year for members of the Class of 2023 and 2024 — not to mention the 4,631 members of Class of 2025 and transfer students, who eagerly braved heavy rain Wednesday morning to move in and begin their collegiate journey at the University. 

Move-in will continue Thursday and first years will have the upcoming week to partake in Wahoo Welcome events and attend convocation — where they will sign the Honor pledge — and Welcome Week programming, including University traditions like Rotunda Sings and the Welcome Week concert. 

Though University leadership promised this fall will mark a return to normal operations, the prevalence of the Delta variant — a more contagious version of COVID-19 — has recently caused a change in plans. In response to rising cases and hospitalizations across the Commonwealth, the University reinstated a mask mandate for all individuals inside University properties beginning Aug. 9. Academic and administrative buildings, libraries, dining halls and recreational facilities will still open at full capacity, and because of high vaccination rates among students, individuals are not required to wear masks in private settings or in dorms and on-Grounds housing.

All students were required to receive a COVID-19 vaccination before returning to Grounds unless they applied for a religious or medical exemption. Faculty and staff were “strongly encouraged” — but not required — to get vaccinated. As of Monday, 96 percent of students returning to Grounds and 92 percent of academic division staff are vaccinated, according to University spokesperson Wes Hester. All unvaccinated members of the community are required to wear masks and participate in weekly prevalence testing for the duration of the semester.

Despite Wednesday morning’s rainy weather, first years were excited to be settling into their new homes and exploring Grounds — their first time doing so for many. For first-year College student Nadia Cheng, Wednesday was her first visit to the University, as she is an out-of-state student from New York. 

“I’m pretty excited to finally have social interactions with other people and meet new people on Grounds,” Cheng said. “I feel like the University has done a pretty good job with [health precautions] like the vaccine mandate and keeping us updated on the masking rules.”

Upperclassmen resident advisors, orientation leaders and student greeters lined McCormick and Alderman Roads to help first-year students find the correct building, get their student IDs and move in. Second-year Engineering student Hannah Park, an orientation leader, said that because she missed out on the “typical” first-year experience, orientation has been a chance to see what the University is like in a normal year. 

“[The first years] seem pretty energetic to get moved in,” Park said. “I don’t blame them, they’ve been at home for like two years now. I’m playing it by ear and taking whatever life gives me, but I think it’s a learning experience for everyone because this is going to be a completely different experience than last year.”

For second-year students, this fall will be the first semester they experience in-person after a full year of remote and hybrid learning. 

Second-year College student Eryn Rhodes said she is ready to not only resume classes and in-person dining, but also to safely enjoy University traditions that she missed her first year due to COVID-19. 

Events such as Lighting of the Lawn and Trick-Or-Treating on the Lawn — which typically draw thousands to Grounds — were moved online or canceled due to the pandemic. Last year, Lighting of the Lawn was held virtually on Nov. 19, broadcasting arts performances and recordings of notable alumni to viewers at home. Other student life strongholds at the University, such as club sports, were only able to recruit about 50 percent of the students they normally do, and social distancing requirements made socializing difficult. 

“I think with everyone around Grounds getting vaccinated, we can start opening activities back up given it’s safe to do so,” Rhodes said in a message to The Cavalier Daily. “I look forward to participating in some of the fun events we didn’t get last year, like football games and Lighting of the Lawn.”

Some students, including second-year College student Daniel Bojo, are hoping that conditions remain better than last year. Still, Bojo said he has hope that the connections he made during his first year bode well for what the University offers in normal times.

“I’m super excited and lucky that we’ve been able to get to this point, but also anxious about the COVID guidelines returning to how they were last year,” Bojo said in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily. “I think we’ll have a lot of momentum going into this next year and I’m really eager to experience everything college has to offer.”

Throughout the 2020-2021 academic year, the University’s gathering limit for in-person events fluctuated from 15 to five to six to 25, and for 10 days in February, there was even a ban on all in-person gatherings. All the while, strict social distancing and masking requirements were in place. It wasn’t until May that the University rescinded all social distancing and gathering limits. Lower caseloads over the summer led to the University’s decision to move back to in-person residential living and learning for the fall semester.

Third-year students, meanwhile, had their first year on Grounds cut short when the University told students to remain at home during spring break. Despite hope that they would soon be permitted to move back in, students never returned to finish out the spring semester in-person after classes were moved online for the remainder of the year. With all gathering limits and social distancing requirements now lifted, third years now have the chance to experience their first full year of regular college.

In an email message to The Cavalier Daily, third-year College student Ariana Arenson expressed her excitement to return to Grounds and reunite with friends and classmates despite the uncertainty surrounding the Delta variant.

“I’m excited to finally be walking around Grounds again and seeing everyone’s smiles to feel a sense of normalcy during the school year,” Arensen said. “I recognize the Delta variant may change circumstances but for now, I’m holding onto that.”

For some third-year students, the beginning of the fall semester marks their transition out of the College of Arts and Sciences and into new schools such as the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy or the McIntire School of Commerce. Third-year Commerce student Sy Coffey detailed his anticipation for transitioning back to residential learning while adjusting into a new program.

“Throughout the summer, I’ve experienced conflicting feelings of excitement and nervousness about returning to in-person classes and beginning my journey at McIntire this fall,” Coffey wrote in a statement to the Cavalier Daily. “Now that I’m less than a week away from the first day of classes, my feelings of excitement have prevailed.”

The fall semester also marks the end of online learning for most students, save for a limited number of classes that were impacted by space shortage. The University moved about 20 — or less than one percent — of College courses that were previously assigned classroom space to the online synchronous format, according to Hester. An email to impacted students made clear that this change does not alter associated lab or discussion sections and is completely unrelated to pandemic precautions.

Hester said the decision was made because student class enrollment occurred before the University could assess classroom space for this semester.

“The College of Arts and Sciences moved this group of courses online primarily because it was the least disruptive option for students,” Hester said in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily. “Ultimately, the move to online was the most optimal solution to keep student course selections and schedules intact.”

Despite the handful of students whose classes will be conducted online, most are optimistic that 9 a.m. Zoom calls will be a thing of the past and that they can finally get back to classrooms. 

“I’m hoping my classes will be more meaningful and engaging now that it feels like more than staring at a computer screen,” Rhodes said.

Since members of the Class of 2025 were juniors in high school when the pandemic began, they too will have to adjust to in-person learning after most spent senior year on Zoom calls at home instead of with friends in their final year of high school. 

“I feel like [first years] are definitely a lot more unprepared in terms of the classes we took last year, but I think the fact that we’re all on a pretty similar page will mean that we’ll just have to work with professors and each other,” first-year Engineering student Alex Schaefer said. “I’m really excited to get back to a somewhat normal year.”

Others, like first-year College students Ivy Reynolds and Lucy Davis, took gap years when the pandemic hit, and are looking forward to meeting people face-to-face and making new friends.

“There have been tons of information and resources so I feel like we really have the support we need,” Davis said. “We’re just super excited to be here finally.”

Despite uncertainty about the Delta variant, both girls said they are hopeful that they’ll be able to stay on Grounds and in classrooms.  

“Being back in school and a classroom is huge,” Reynolds said. “No matter what, I feel like we’re pretty resilient at this point, and we’re going to roll with the punches.”