Charlottesville’s Human Rights Commission plans to send a letter to the University of Virginia urging President Jim Ryan to hold classes online.
The commission discussed the coming return of students and its impact on the spread of the coronavirus locally during its meeting Thursday.
“Bringing 10,000 bodies to a small town poses a risk and we’re seeing it at the universities that have already opened,” Commissioner Kathryn Laughon said.
The commission is largely an advisory and community outreach panel, while also investigating discrimination complaints.
Online classes for undergraduates start Tuesday. Undergrads are expected to move into university housing starting Sept. 3, with classes to switch to in-person on Sept. 8.
Undergraduates who live off-Grounds, about two-thirds of students, have been asked to delay their return until next month.
Graduate and professional students already have moved back to the area to attend in-person classes.
Several universities across the country already have reverted to online classes after seeing outbreaks of COVID-19.
UVa officials have set a deadline of this Friday for determining if the semester will go fully virtual.
“It’s just a concern for a lot of the population in Charlottesville and especially the older seniors in the community or anyone who has any health issues,” said Commissioner Ann Smith.
UVa has said that students must follow strict guidelines on and off Grounds to slow the spread of the virus, including no gatherings with more than 15 people, wearing a mask inside and outside and maintaining six feet of distance from others. Officials have said that non-compliance will result in sanctions.
Local government officials already have sounded the alarm about students returning to the area, but haven’t sent any formal communications to university officials urging them to change course.
“This is putting the staff of the university at risk,” Laughon said. “It’s putting the residents of the city at risk.”
Joint meeting postponed
In other business, the commission discussed a planned joint meeting with the City Council that has now been delayed.
The meeting was scheduled for this Tuesday. The two bodies haven’t held a joint meeting since October 2018.
The meeting was meant to discuss the future of the commission and the Office of Human Rights, along with potential changes to beef up the authority of both entities.
The commission and office have been scrutinized since inception, with some saying they don’t do enough to investigate complaints and others faulting the City Council for limiting their powers.
The changes under consideration include hiring a director for the office with legal and civil rights credentials, as well as the office and commission jointly conducting one major study on systemic discrimination per year.
Mayor Nikuyah Walker said the meeting was delayed to allow time for the city to hire a deputy city manager for racial equity, diversity and inclusion. The position will oversee the Office of Human Rights and the Police Civilian Review Board.
“I don’t think it would be very productive because we don’t have a lot of the answers that you all will be looking for,” Walker said of holding the meeting this week.
Commission chair Shantell Bingham said the decision “makes a ton of sense to me” and that the point of the meeting was to “have everybody at the table.”
“We all know that our city needs to do better,” she said. “And we all know that we need to hire people who are capable of doing that work.”