Students, faculty and staff will return to Grounds this fall, but life in and out of University of Virginia classrooms is going to be very different with virtual classes, social distancing, restroom assignments and daily symptom checks as the school responds to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a Wednesday letter to the university community signed by UVa President Jim Ryan and other school leaders, officials said they plan to start fall classes on Aug. 25, “assuming federal and state guidelines allow it.”
Research laboratories are cranking back up and professional schools at the university have begun welcoming students back this summer, officials said.
First-year students and others living in university housing will move in on a staggered schedule over several days, but the school will make allowances for students who prefer to learn from home. Practicums and courses that require a student to attend in person to receive a license will still require students to attend in person.
“We have designed this fall so that students can take courses from wherever they are,” the letter states. “Regardless of where students are, our aim will be to provide all of them an engaging and enriching academic experience.”
Besides Ryan, the letter was signed by Provost Liz Magill; K. Craig Kent, executive vice president for health affairs; and J.J. Davis, executive vice president and chief operating officer.
According to the letter, the need to limit the spread of the coronavirus will result in smaller class sizes. Lectures and classes that normally have a large student audience will be moved online, officials said. In-person classes also will be offered online for those students who choose to stay away from Grounds.
“Decisions about which classes will have an in-person option will be made based on the format of each class, our classroom capacity in light of public health requirements, and the availability of faculty instructors to teach in person,” the letter states. “Students can expect to hear more from individual schools in the coming weeks and no later than the end of July, which is before the start of the add-drop period.”
The university also is allowing students to take a course during the January semester — from Jan. 4 to Jan. 15 — and during the 2021 summer term without paying additional tuition.
“Taking five classes online at one time could be rough and the limited in-person class sizes could lead to situations where students need to take a course during those terms to keep current,” said Brian Coy, UVa spokesman. “The idea is to provide students with as much flexibility as possible during this time.”
“Most students will therefore have the option, depending on their degree program requirements, to spread out what would normally be taken in fall and spring over fall, J-term, spring, and summer,” officials said in the letter.
Students who opt to move onto Grounds for the school year can expect to keep their distance and wear masks, according to the letter.
“Anyone sharing a classroom, lab, dining hall, lounge, or other common space will need to maintain a six-foot distance for any contact longer than 10 minutes,” officials wrote. “Face coverings will also be required in common spaces and physical barriers will be provided in libraries and in public-service locations like dining hall cashier stations and help desks.”
The school will provide students, faculty and staff with personal protective equipment, including masks, officials said. Students, faculty and staff will be required to track their symptoms daily using a cellphone application; tests for the virus will be given to anyone who exhibits symptoms; and voluntary testing will be made available for faculty, staff, contract employees and students who are concerned they may have COVID-19 but do not show symptoms.
Students who test positive for the virus may isolate on Grounds and students exposed to the virus may quarantine on Grounds.
Students also will discover some differences in university life, from changes to the academic calendar to where they shower.
There will be no fall break for 2020 and in-person instruction will end by Thanksgiving with students not returning to Grounds until after Jan. 1, “to minimize travel and possible transmission of the virus.”
Students living in dormitories will be able to choose roommates and will be in double rooms. Specific sinks, stalls and showers will be assigned to students, and there will be a limit on the number of students allowed in a communal bathroom at one time.
In-person dining on Grounds will have social distance restrictions in place and more take-out options, with many activities being held online rather than in person and those in-person events keeping within public health guidelines, official said.
“We are also developing additional guidelines, including around limiting travel to and from Grounds,” the letter states. “Those decisions are being made now, and we will share more information once we have it.”
As university life changes for students, so shall it change for staff.
“Just as we know that some students will not return to Grounds this fall, we know that even with the extensive precautions … not all faculty, staff, and graduate teaching assistants will be in a position to resume in-person work and teaching,” the letter states.
“We are mindful that individual circumstances make some individuals more vulnerable than others to the effects of this disease,” officials wrote. “We will prioritize requests for modifications from those who are at higher risk for severe illness, as well as anyone with a household member at higher risk.”
Athletics will continue during the fall term but exactly what that will look like, and how many spectators may be allowed, is unknown, official said.
“We have not yet made final decisions about fan attendance, but we will communicate plans to our ticket holders and supporters as those decisions are made,” the letter states. “The steps above are designed to keep students safe, protect all faculty and staff, and prevent the spread of the virus in the broader Charlottesville community. In this case, the actions of even one person can affect many others. Keeping people healthy — and keeping students on Grounds — will require all of us to do our part.”
UVa officials noted that change is the only constant with COVID-19 and that plans they are putting in place could be altered as medical research into the virus continues and recommendations from health officials change.
“All of this will make life and this semester more difficult, but our hope and expectation is that we can come together in these extraordinary times and make the best of an incredibly difficult situation,” the letter states. “Doing that will require flexibility and patience, but if the past is any indication, this year will also push us to be more creative, inspire us to be more selfless, and in many ways bring us closer together than ever before.”