Marking the beginning of an unusual — and controversial — semester, University of Virginia students and their families were in good spirits Thursday as first-years started moving into dormitories.
The students are moving in at staggered dates and times in a bid by the university to reduce human contact and the potential spread of COVID-19. Masks were required during the move-in process and all students living in university housing will be required to agree to follow UVa’s COVID-19 policy.
Approximately 676 students were expected to move in between 4 and 8 p.m. Thursday, with another 688 expected Friday and 1,510 on Saturday.
Along with boxes, pillows, bookcases and other belongings, move-in was marked by masks and boxes of disinfectant spray serving as reminders of the new reality.
Despite the pandemic, some students and their families said they were hopeful move-in marked the start of a successful, albeit abnormal, semester.
Kyle Stephenson Jr., a first-year student who plans to major in history, said he appreciated the empty hallways and that the move-in process had gone smoothly for him so far.
Stephenson said many of his classes and activities are remote, including marching band, but he also will have some in-person classes. Acknowledging the inherent risk of in-person classes, he said he was hopeful the semester would go well and that students would take their health seriously.
“I’m kind of sitting in the middle because although you hear horror stories about all the other schools, we’ve got a fantastic hospital and our pre-testing with quick results,” he said. “So I’m really hoping we can get this all taken care of.”
Stephenson’s father said he isn’t too worried about this semester, so long as the students and staff take necessary safety precautions.
“I’m excited because this is the opportunity that we all want our children to be exposed to — attending an incredible university and graduating,” Kyle Stephenson Sr. said. “This is, hopefully, the beginning of how life is supposed to go, with kids going away and developing and growing.”
With UVa having started classes online Aug. 25, Jade Alvarez, a first-year student from Richmond, said she already had assignments due. Like many other first-years, Alvarez said all of her classes will remain online this semester.
“It feels weird and there’s a lot of information coming in about when to move in and how to take safety precautions, but I’m excited,” she said.
As Chanlee Hudson and her family stood with her belongings, the first-year student shared that she was nervous to begin the year but hopes she’ll be able to stay at UVa for the whole semester.
Like many of the other first-years moving in Thursday, Hudson said she had not yet met her roommate in person. As part of UVa’s effort to socially distance, roommates were discouraged from moving in at the same time.
Though the students and their families were optimistic about the semester, some members of UVa and wider Charlottesville-area communities have expressed trepidation with the school’s decision to hold in-person instruction.
On Wednesday, student members of the UVa Youth Democratic Socialists of America staged a “die-in” on the Lawn to draw attention to their demands, chanting “no acceptable losses, no in-person classes.”
Their demands include the cessation of in-person instruction, which is set to begin Tuesday; a tuition freeze; and free health care for COVID-19-related illness.
The decision to hold in-person instruction also led in part to various UVa employees announcing their intention to unionize.
The group of employees currently is mostly made up of graduate student workers. The union, which would be part of United Campus Workers, also would include undergraduate student workers, faculty and staff, including those in the UVa Health System.
State law bars the university from recognizing the union but doesn’t prevent employees from organizing.
Speaking on her own behalf, Charlottesville City Councilor Sena Magill said in an interview Thursday that she is concerned about UVa holding in-person classes and views the decision as a mistake.
Frontal lobes of human brains do not fully finish developing until about age 26, and as this part of the brain is responsible for judgment, Magill said she is concerned the young students may push the boundaries of safe practices.
“I see other universities deciding to go all virtual after bringing their students back and am concerned we will face this same issue here,” she said. “I am worried for the people working in grocery stores, in our restaurants, and other essential workers who will now be exposed to an influx of people from across the country who may not be practicing precautions as stringently as we have been.”
Magill said she believes the city and the university are equipped to handle a certain level of outbreaks but she is worried about the capacity to deal with outbreaks that could occur not just among students but among the larger community, as well.
None of the other city council members returned requests for comment, though Mayor Nikuyah Walker previously has described UVa’s reopening plan as a “recipe for disaster.”
Some other colleges in Virginia already have made the switch to remote instruction following outbreaks.
This week, James Madison University announced it would to transition to online classes after 528 COVID-19 cases were reported on campus. School officials gave some 6,000 students living on campus until Monday to move out.
Virginia colleges reported more than 1,400 coronavirus cases as of Tuesday. The 528 at JMU are the most in the state.