As the University of Virginia is set for an unusual fall semester, officials are continuing to add and refine measures to try to keep students and the community safe.
Last week, as students moved into university housing, officials clarified the limits on gatherings and how mask requirements and other coronavirus-related restrictions would be enforced, and they announced random, mandatory COVID-19 testing for students.
“So what we are trying to do is ensure that our students, faculty and staff are safe,” UVa President Jim Ryan said in an interview last week. “And one of the ways to do that, I think, is to ensure that our students feel like they’re still a part of the UVa community. I will say I’ve been heartened so far. If you walk around, students are taking it seriously, and that’s a good thing. This is a hard thing for everyone, and it’s gonna require everyone doing their part.”
In-person classes at UVa begin Tuesday, more than six months after officials suspended classes and sent students home in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. As UVa is set to start the fall semester in-person, the spread of the virus locally is not under control. The number of cases and the positivity rates have climbed recently in Charlottesville — a trend some in the community fear will be exacerbated by the recent return of students.
In the last month, universities that decided to hold in-person classes and bring students back to the dorms have seen hundreds of positive cases among students with some, such as the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, deciding to switch classes online. Last week, James Madison University temporarily moved courses online and told students to go home for a few weeks in response to a surge of cases after less than a week of classes.
As of Monday, there were 227 positive cases at UVa, with students accounting for 186 of those, according to the university’s virus dashboard.
Meanwhile, thousands of students in local public schools are starting the school year Tuesday with online classes.
Ryan said every institution has to come to its own decision.
“I don’t think there are any obviously right ways to go about this,” Ryan said. “I totally respect what the K-12 schools are doing, but we’ve chosen a different path, and part of the reason we did, honestly, is we knew that students would be back.”
That’s why Ryan said that UVa’s decision to hold in-person classes is a red herring.
“Whether we have classes online, all online or not, there would be 12[,000] to 15,000 students here in Charlottesville, regardless,” he said, echoing a point he has made in recent weeks. “… So then the question is, well, what is the best thing to do given that students are going to be here? I feel like if we just put a closed sign on the university, and there were thousands of students here, it would be much harder for them to feel like they’re part of the community and maybe reduce their motivation to look out for themselves and look out for each other.”
Students had the option to take classes online from home, and UVa doesn’t yet know how many undergraduates will be in Charlottesville for the fall semester. The semester started online Aug. 18. Lectures and classes that normally have a large student audience will be held online for the whole semester. A small number of clinical or practicum courses are offered only in-person. Students in graduate and professional programs started in-person classes last month.
Students wanting to come to Charlottesville were required to submit a negative COVID-19 test in advance. Of those 18,122 screening tests, 65 were positive.
The screening tests have not proven to be a silver bullet. At the University of Notre Dame, 99.7% of the tests were negative, but officials there still decided to suspend classes for two weeks after 222 confirmed cases.
Notre Dame and other universities that have tried to reopen for students have provided insights for UVa officials about how to prepare.
“One thing we have learned is that it’s really important to have a good testing protocol in place, and it’s really important to make sure that you have a lot of space for quarantining and isolating students, and that the quicker you can respond to outbreaks, the more likely it is that you can contain them.”
The university recently increased the number of rooms for quarantine and isolation to 1,500 and boosted efforts to test students and employees for the virus.
“But the other thing you know, honestly, is that you have to be willing to adapt,” Ryan said. “This virus remains unpredictable, and when it gets started, it can move really quickly. … It really is all about trying to stay one step ahead.”
Ryan didn’t share a specific threshold for cases, hospitalizations or deaths that would force UVa to change course. However, officials are monitoring different factors, from the number of positive cases to the use of isolation and quarantine space. As of Monday, 4% of the quarantine and isolation rooms were in use.
“You can’t pinpoint one because a lot of it depends on the interaction,” he said. “… If you have a lot of isolation and quarantine space, you can handle a lot of cases. If you’re running out of isolation and quarantine space, then you can’t handle a lot of cases.”
He added that they are making sure they have enough testing capacity and keeping an eye on hospitalizations rates. The university has purchased 27,000 tests from a third-party company, and the UVa Medical Center is hoping to receive an additional machine this month that will allow it to process 1,500 tests a day — up from about 300 to 400 right now.
“If it looks like the system is going to be overloaded or we have to prevent the system from overloading, that’s when you need to reassess,” Ryan said.
Officials first announced plans for the fall semester in June and outlined a host of strategies to slow or prevent the spread of the virus among students, faculty and staff, including reducing the capacity of dorms and developing a health screening app.
In early August, the university delayed the start of in-person classes, citing a concerning trend in the virus’ prevalence rate, as well as testing supply chain issues. Officials decided Aug. 28 to continue with the plan for the fall semester.
“We wanted to make sure that both were moving in the right direction, and they were,” Ryan said of the decision to continue with the current plan. “That made us as confident as we could be. You always have to be humble with this virus about moving forward.”
One strategy other college communities have sought is to seek to have bars close earlier. For example, in Columbia, Missouri, bars and restaurants were ordered to stop serving alcohol by 9 p.m. after the area saw a spike in COVID-19 cases.
“We’re in active conversations about that,” Ryan said.
The university is requiring students to wear masks on and off Grounds when they are outside their residence and can’t stay six feet away from others. Gatherings are limited to a maximum of 15 people. Those who don’t comply could face suspension, the university has said — a message that other universities also have sent as they seek to control the virus’ spread.
UVa has set up reporting tools for students and community members who spot compliance issues.
If a student tests positive for the virus, they will be contacted by a contact tracer through the Thomas Jefferson Health District. Ryan said information shared with contact tracers will not be used for enforcement.
“What we do not want is students feeling like they can’t cooperate with contact tracing or that they’re not going to get tested in the UVa system,” he said. “You know that makes it worse for everyone.”
Still, UVa’s decision to hold in-person classes and house students on Grounds has been met with skepticism and opposition from some university groups and community members. UVa’s Student Council Executive Board opposed the move, and employees are seeking to form a union, in part to advocate for classes to remain online. The Cavalier Daily published an editorial warning against the risk to health and lives it says comes with the university’s in-person plans.
“We are worried for the health and safety of the University’s employees who will be forced to work in an environment with students who continue to go to parties and bars,” the newspaper wrote. “We are worried for the community members that will be forced to take extra safety precautions due to the inevitable spike in cases that Charlottesville will soon see. We are worried for the students who will find themselves sick just because they showed up to class.”
Ryan said that if UVa closed the dorms, students would just move into the Charlottesville community.
“We saw this with second-, third- and fourth-year students when we announced the delay,” he said. “About 800 or 900 students dropped their on-Grounds housing contracts, and most of them moved into the Charlottesville community, which I don’t think makes them safer or the Charlottesville community safer.”