As students, faculty and community members learned of the University’s decision to return for in-person instruction and activities, reactions included both excitement and frustration. Spurred by a recent spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations, students and student organizations question University testing availability and personal protective equipment provision — but many remain hopeful that as the impacts of omicron lessen, a sense of normalcy will prevail.
The University detailed plans to begin the semester as scheduled with in-person instruction, in an email sent Jan. 7 — the deadline for students to submit proof of their required booster shot was also moved up by more than two weeks, and faculty with health conditions were permitted to begin the semester remotely.
Ella Tynch, chair of the Young Democratic Socialists of America at U.Va. and third-year Education student, said the organization is extremely concerned with the University’s response to COVID-19 this semester. YDSA has been working with and building off of efforts started by PLUMAS at U.Va., Central Americans for Empowerment at U.Va., and Cultural Organization For Latin Americans at U.Va., along with Black student groups including the Black Student Alliance and Organization of African Students at U.Va.
This coalition of groups, led by PLUMAS, is currently working on formulating an official campaign for expanded testing and increased COVID-19 precautions. In the interim, YDSA has been encouraging members to help classmates who contracted COVID-19 by sharing lecture notes.
Students have also expressed frustration with the lack of University-provided personal protective equipment, including masks and hand sanitizers. Per a social media post by U.Va. Mutual Aid, Housing and Residence Life provided resident advisors with a singular KN95 mask and one small bottle of hand sanitizer at the beginning of the semester. In response, Mutual Aid launched a fundraiser to distribute KN95 masks to students and workers. The group has raised over $1,300 as of Thursday.
Students have also raised concerns with the lack of accessible prevalence testing now that all students are no longer required to submit to weekly prevalence testing. Due to the vaccine requirement for students, weekly testing was not required last semester or this semester, and some students expressed frustration about the accessibility and availability of University testing.
Nikita Amin, communications chair for Young Democratic Socialists of America at U.V.a. and third-year College student, said the lack of available testing on the weekends means that students without a car or reliable source of transportation cannot always get tested.
The University’s website lists two active testing sites on Grounds — one is in the basement of Newcomb Hall and is available by appointment 8:00 a.m. through 4:30 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and from 7:30 a.m. through 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. The second testing site is at the Employee Health Center on Jefferson Park Avenue and is available by appointment on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m.
Students with transportation can also get tested for free at the Blue Ridge Community Testing Center located in the Pantops Shopping Center. However, tests are offered only by appointment and the location is only open Saturdays through Tuesdays from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. From central Grounds, the Pantops Shopping Center is approximately 10 minutes away by car.
Based on availability, students may also get a rapid antigen or laboratory PCR test any day between 8:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. at MedExpress Urgent Care.
“U.Va. Health was closed for the weekend, this past weekend,” Amin said. “And a lot of people who were exposed were like, ‘Oh, I’m going to go get tested,’ and then realized they couldn't or had to go to MedExpress.”
University spokesperson Brian Coy said the University moved the testing sites into the basement of Newcomb Hall due to colder outside temperatures and a lower demand for testing, as students who are fully vaccinated are not required to test.
“Given the cold winter temperatures, an indoor setting is a safer and more comfortable approach for both workers and those who are waiting for tests,” Coy said in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily.
While students are not required to get tested weekly if fully vaccinated, current public health measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 include masking in all University-owned buildings, including classrooms, libraries and IM-Rec facilities. The University also instituted a ban on the sale of food and beverages at events and athletic competitions from Jan. 17 to Feb. 4 to ensure mask compliance at University events.
Students and faculty were also originally required to receive a booster shot to live and learn on Grounds. Following an executive order from Governor Glenn Youngkin, however, the University will no longer require faculty and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of employment as of Jan. 19.
Still, approximately 99 percent of employees received their primary vaccinations, while 85 percent of academic employees have received booster shots. 99.1 percent of eligible students have received a booster shot as of Jan. 21. These figures reflect only the individuals who were eligible to receive their booster rather than all students, faculty and staff.
Some members of the University community — including Addiction and Prevention Research
Specialist Connie Clark — appreciated additional steps for safety the University has taken, such as maintaining the masking requirements and booster requirements for students.
“I feel like they have gone above and beyond since all of this started to ensure the safety of students, staff [and] faculty,” Clark said.
There are those within the Charlottesville community who have other concerns about returning in person, however. Gil Somers, community member and former bartender on the Corner, views the University’s decision to resume in-person classes as “a little careless, and a little flippant.”
“To have all these students traveling in from all different places, feels a little outside of my control, this infiltration,” Somers said. “Especially during this omicron influx.”
Somers said he is less likely to go out and visit friends in the area as students return to Charlottesville. As of Tuesday, Charlottesville has seen an average of 107 cases a day and increasing hospitalization rates over the past two weeks.
“I’m a little more reluctant to go out,” Somers said. “I have a lot of friends who work in the restaurants on the Corner and [I] won't be going out to see them.”
Some students share Somers’ belief about the need for more action from the University to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and enforce current regulations. First-year Engineering student Farhan Khan hopes to see more action from the University to prevent the transmission of the omicron variant.
“I would hope that they are more strict about it just because so many people I know were getting COVID,” Khan said. “Just because of how easily it can spread.”
In addition to a continuance of the mask mandate and a prohibition of food and beverages in University events, University public health guidance issued Jan. 14 by Provost Liz Magill and Chief Operating Officer J.J. Davis advised on-Grounds students who test positive to isolate at home in order to preserve quarantine space for those who are unable to travel home. Off-Grounds students are advised to quarantine in their residence or travel home if possible.
Khan said he is frustrated with the University’s new isolation protocols — particularly the recommendation that those who contract COVID-19 isolate in their own homes as opposed to University-provided space. Last semester, the University provided approximately 1,500 quarantine and isolation beds for students.
“Honestly, this is a bad look for [the University],” Khan said. “Not being able to provide isolation spaces [for every student] to prevent potentially infecting others and harming our community is a problem.”
Tynch shares Khan’s worries about isolation space, though extends concern to the safety of faculty and staff as well as students. Tynch worries that University employees are putting their own communities at risk if they contract COVID-19 while working and unknowingly bring it home.
“It's frustrating, because these employees are going home to their families and communities and bringing what they might have contracted at their college work environment home, and that's upsetting,” Tynch said.
In an email to the Cavalier Daily, Asst. English Prof. Kate Stephenson explained her mix of caution and excitement for the opportunity to teach in-person this semester.
“I feel excited, but also a little cautious,” Stephenson said. “I love teaching in-person and it makes a big difference to actually be in the classroom with students. So that is always my hope — that we can learn together in the same space.”
While Stephenson is hopeful for a full semester of in-person learning, she is prepared for a virtual reality as well, and her class is set up for both virtual and in-person possibilities.
“I don't think [the new isolation guidelines] will change my course or my preparation this semester,” Stephenson said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “I allow students to Zoom into class if they are sick or quarantined, so I don't see increased travel affecting our course.”
University leadership has provided instructors with a variety of methods to help students who can’t attend class, including recording lectures, employing a “buddy system” where students inform their peers of what was missed and being flexible with deadlines. There is no University-wide requirement that professors provide a Zoom option, and instructors are not required to change their mode of instruction when students test positive.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding this semester, a common sentiment among students, faculty and community members was hope that the virus begins to loosen its grip on the community and that a return to a sense of normalcy takes place.
“I think my hopes are to return to in-person teaching and learning, to making the atmosphere and environment as comfortable and as engaging for students as possible,” Stephenson said.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect that PLUMAS, CAFE, COLA, BSA and OAS have taken the lead on COVID-19 advocacy, with YDSA building off of the efforts that these groups started. Additionally, a previous version of this article misstated that YDSA and U.Va. Mutual Aid had opened a form to raise money for student support — YDSA did run a mutual aid program independently in the spring of 2021, but have not yet done so in 2022.