University of Virginia officials on Friday said they will start the spring semester as planned on Feb. 1 with in-person classes but will limit gatherings to no more than six people for at least the first two weeks and possibly later.
Requirements to wear face masks and to maintain social distancing will continue from the fall semester.
The announcement came in a university-wide message issued by UVa President Jim Ryan, Provost Liz Magill, Chief Operation Officer J.J. Davis and Craig Kent, executive vice president for health affairs.
“The university’s knowledge about the pandemic and capacity to combat it through extensive asymptomatic testing, quarantine and isolation, and other measures have grown significantly since the academic year began,” the administrators wrote.
Returning students who lived on Grounds in the fall will move back into dorms beginning Jan. 29. All students must take a COVID-19 test with a negative result prior to moving in. All students, including those living in the surrounding community, will be tested each week throughout the semester. That includes graduate and professional students, as well as undergraduates.
Officials said the school can better “monitor and govern compliance with public health measures” of those students living off grounds if the school offers in-person courses.
“After completing a full semester in the fall, we have not seen any evidence of transmission within the classroom, between students and UVa faculty and staff, or from UVa students into the greater [community],” the message states. “While it was challenging, this [university] community has demonstrated that we are capable of complying with measures that limit the spread.”
According to officials, beginning Tuesday gatherings on and off-Grounds will be limited to no more than six people, down from the 10 allowed at the end of fall semester. Current state restrictions are also at 10 people.
The six-person limit will be in effect until at least Valentine’s Day when the administrators will review the policy.
Last fall, UVa put a 10-person limit on gatherings, started a program of testing students even though they had no symptoms and developed a wastewater monitoring system for students living in dormitories.
With some exceptions, students seemed to follow the restrictions and the number of COVID cases reported remained fairly low both on Grounds and in the community at-large.
Much has changed since UVa classes let out for the fall around Thanksgiving, however. The area’s percentage of COVID tests coming back positive has increased to nearly 10 percentage points and the state’s rate has hovered around 15%. The number of the cases and average daily population of COVID cases at the UVa Medical Center have also substantially increased.
The medical center recently banned visitors from hospital buildings, with a few exceptions, citing the increase in cases both in the community and being treated in the hospital. Although there is room in the hospital, the number of doctors, nurses and other staff members available to treat both COVID patients and other medical patients is a limiting factor in the hospital’s ability to respond to the pandemic.
That, officials said, is the reason behind limiting student gatherings other than classes and lab courses to only six people as well as increased testing.
“The increase in the prevalence of the virus in Virginia and around the country, as well as reports of new, more contagious variants of the virus mean we must take an even more aggressive approach, as an institution and as individuals, to limiting the spread within our community,” the email states.
“Simply put, our margin for error is narrower than it was in the fall. A successful spring semester will require even greater adherence to UVa policies around testing, masks, physical distancing, and gatherings. This includes those who have already had COVID-19, as well as those who have received a vaccine,” administrators stated. “If you are unsure of your own ability to abide by these measures, most students have the option to study remotely from home.”
Administrators said those who have had and recovered from COVID or have been vaccinated against the virus need to follow the same guidelines as other students.
“Fellow UVa community members have no way of knowing which people previously tested positive and which are putting themselves and others at risk by ignoring health and safety standards,” the officials said. “Universal adherence will avoid anxiety and potential conflict.”