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UVa hopes to return to in-person classes in August

At least some University of Virginia students likely will be able to return to Grounds in August, though their semester will be abnormal.

In an email from President Jim Ryan on Thursday, some details of the fall semester were presented, including an on-time start to the semester of Aug. 25. Many issues — such as whether tuition and fees would increase as planned — are yet to be detailed, and all come with caveats.

A variety of changes and safety measures are anticipated, including keeping large classes and those taught by staff with health concerns online; allowing most students to attend class virtually; and testing and conducting contact tracing for those with COVID-19.

Ryan’s email, which is also signed by other executives, emphasizes the university’s belief in the importance of the residential campus.

“We also appreciate that learning remotely is much harder for some students than others, given different living arrangements, family circumstances and family obligations,” Ryan wrote. “There is also no end in reasonable sight for this virus, which makes it even more imperative that we do our best to adapt.”

Another anticipated and significant change is the length of the in-person semester, which will see students not return to Grounds after Thanksgiving. Students would not return until January, which officials hope will minimize the inevitable risk associated with travel back and forth to Charlottesville. UVa is still determining if exams can be hosted before Thanksgiving or whether they will be offered remotely.

Additionally, UVa is developing protocols for testing, tracing and isolating people who test positive for COVID-19, as well as identifying spaces to quarantine on-Grounds residents exposed to those who have contracted COVID-19.

The university is working to acquire personal protective equipment, such as masks, for students and staff and is developing social distancing guidelines. No further details were available as of press time Thursday.

“This fall will not be a normal fall, even with some students back on Grounds and some classes being held in person,” Ryan wrote. “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.”

These details were discussed Wednesday in a video conference with UVa faculty. The email couches the announcements as “planning assumptions.” A more formal announcement is expected in mid-June.

One aspect not addressed in the email is whether UVa will continue with a previously approved tuition rate increase, despite financial hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

In December, the Board of Visitors voted to approve a 3.6% tuition increase for the 2020-21 academic year.

Per the approved rate, tuition and mandatory fees will increase for current in-state students between $510 and $880 annually and $1,710 to $2,094 for out-of-state students. The changes apply to those in the College of Arts & Sciences, the Curry School of Education and Human Development, the School of Architecture and the McIntire School of Commerce.

Some universities and colleges, including the College of William & Mary, James Madison University and the Virginia Community College System, have walked back tuition increases in the wake of the pandemic. Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors is considering no increases.

UVa’s Financial Analysis and Planning division did not respond to requests for clarification about whether the school would continue with its approved tuition increase.

During an April 27 Board of Visitors meeting, when asked about tuition rates, Ryan indicated that no decision had yet been made.

“It’s our view is that the decision is tied up with what we do in the fall,” he said at the meeting. “It would be premature for us to have a conversation about that at this point.”

The issue also was not broached during the public portion of the board’s May 18 meeting.

UVa’s planning efforts involve surveys sent to undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty and staff seeking input for recommendation for the next academic year.

About 73% of the 12,300 undergraduates surveyed responded, according to the university, and 92% of respondents “agreed” or “somewhat agreed” to practice safety behaviors such as frequent hand-washing, masking and social distancing. And 86% “agreed” or “somewhat agreed” to hold their peers accountable on those measures.

Brian Coy, a UVa spokesman, said Ryan and the university are expected to announce plans for the fall semester by mid-June.

James Toscano, of Partners For College Affordability and Public Trust, said he hopes UVa revisits its fall tuition decision in light of the financial and public health crisis.

“So often, Virginia looks to UVa for leadership when it comes to higher education, but in this case, UVa needs to look for others when it comes to how to treat Virginians as a result of the pandemic,” he said. “There’s a degree of tone deafness for an institution to set a tuition rate months before one of the world’s worst pandemics and not revisit that decision.”

Other universities and colleges have found ways to freeze tuition with more limited financial resources, Toscano said.

“There is an urgency to this situation — families are having to make budgetary decisions and they’re having to make trade-offs,” he said. “Around the country there is a conversation going on, and UVa needs to consider that.”


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