Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker on Monday called the University of Virginia’s plan to allow students on Grounds and have in-person classes “a recipe for disaster.”
Walker held a virtual press conference with several local officials on Monday to discuss the coronavirus pandemic and safety measures local residents should be taking.
Walker’s comments came as local government, health and K-12 schools officials are starting to sound the alarm over the possible negative repercussions of bringing college students back to the area. In the press conference, Walker mentioned that officials have received reports of house parties and other large gatherings.
She said a social media post has been circulating recently showing a crowded party with UVa students.
“I, for one, do not understand why the students are coming back into the community from all over the globe and why we would take that chance,” Walker said.
Last month, UVa President Jim Ryan announced that classes will start on Aug. 25, with reduced class sizes, some lectures online and daily symptom checks. 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.”
First-year students and others living in university housing still would be allowed to live in dorms with social distancing and mask requirements.
The plans were announced with the caveat that they could still change as the pandemic continues. University officials haven’t said yet how many students will be returning to Grounds.
On Monday, UVa spokesman Brian Coy said the university is preparing to bring students back “in a way that reflects the advice of medical and public health experts, as well as state and federal regulations.”
He said that later this week UVa will release a “broad health and safety plan” to prevent the spread of the virus. The plan will cover testing, contact tracing and “the university’s expectations around the wearing of masks and physical distancing on and off Grounds.”
“Public health is the university’s highest concern, and the plan we are finalizing reflects that commitment,” Coy said.
Some colleges have started revising their plans for the fall, such as Hampton University, which recently announced that it would offer only online classes after initially planning in-person classes.
Coy did not respond directly when asked if UVa is considering changing its fall plans, how UVa will monitor students off Grounds and any response officials have to concerns about students returning.
Coy did say that the university has remained in constant contact with student organizations since the beginning of the pandemic and will continue to work with every member of the UVa community to promote practices to limit the virus’ spread.
Walker said the influx of students in August and their departure at the end of the semester would create health risks for the city.
“It’s a recipe for disaster,” she said. “It’s going to leave us all in the lurch … in August when they come and in November when they leave, and we’ll be left cleaning up the fallout from that decision.”
For local school boards, thousands of UVa students coming back to the area is a key outstanding question in reopening plans that are based on the state and area staying in Phase Three of Gov. Ralph Northam’s guidelines.
Albemarle County School Board member Kate Acuff said Thursday that she was worried about UVa students returning to the Charlottesville area, echoing a concern raised during public comment at the board’s meeting.
“I’ve already seen them out and about without masks, and so I’m somewhat concerned about that,” she said. “If they do come back and if there is an outbreak, it would probably be October-ish before it would show up. I’m assuming we’re making plans for that in some way, and that’s all I need to know.”
School board members in Charlottesville and Albemarle have said they want to use local case numbers and associated metrics as part of their decision-making process for reopening schools. They’re worried that the return of UVa students could change the case numbers shortly before in-person classes are supposed to start. The first day of classes for the Albemarle County school division is Sept. 8, a date Charlottesville City Schools is considering using as well.
“In any given moment, after the [UVa] students come back into our town, the local numbers are going to be really different than they are right now,” said Jennifer McKeever, chairwoman of the city School Board, during a recent board meeting. “And I just want to make sure that we are 100% prepared for that potential worst-case scenario.”
An open letter from Charlottesville teachers also mentioned the return as putting the community at risk for rapid spread of the virus.
The Thomas Jefferson Health District, which includes the city and county, reported 28 new cases of the coronavirus for a total of 1,236 and 29 deaths as of Monday. In the first 13 days of July, the district saw 308 new cases, putting the month on pace to surpass June’s 380 cases.
Walker emphasized during the press conference that the city has no authority over UVa.
“We can’t do anything other than implore the university to make a different decision,” she said.
City Manager Tarron Richardson said city and UVa officials were meeting later on Monday to discuss the return plan. He said UVa officials would provide more details about safety and testing measures but did not indicate whether the city would push for a change to the reopening plan during the meeting.