By Sydney Halleman
Amy has a lot of school spirit. A third-year at the University of Virginia, she’s been active in the UVA community since her first year. She holds leadership positions in multiple clubs. “I go to all the football games,” Amy says. “And I love wearing my UVA gear.”
But her sentiment toward her university started to shift as the novel coronavirus swept through Virginia. Amy, who is immunocompromised due to asthma and chronic sinusitis, is concerned for her club members and her own health as the University of Virginia moves closer to opening Grounds to students on August 25. She has been given no specific guidelines on how to hold meetings or host club activities safely.
“This is not a time for self-governance,” Amy says.
Students like Amy—and Charlottesville residents—have become increasingly concerned with the university’s guidelines for reopening, and its lack of enforcement of mask wearing and social distancing, which are crucial to preventing the spread of COVID-19.
“This is the first time I’ve felt disappointed with UVA,” she says. “I love UVA, I truly love it. And this is the first time where I feel like I’ve been cheated…The lack of communication and lack of transparency is very, very frustrating.”
The coronavirus has killed 141,000 people in the United States since March. Charlottesville, thus far, has been relatively spared in comparison to other cities, due to non-essential businesses closing early and limits on gatherings.
However, as national COVID-19 rates spike for a second time, Charlottesville’s rate of infections has been steadily rising. City leaders and community members are concerned that the return of students could mark a deadly rise in coronavirus cases. In a July 13 virtual press conference, Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker called UVA’s plans to reopen Grounds to students a “recipe for disaster.”
“I, for one, don’t understand why the students are coming back into the community, from all over the globe, and why we’re taking that chance,” she said.
During a recent city schools school board meeting, Chairwoman Jennifer McKeever said, “In any given moment, after the students come back into our town, the local numbers are going to be really different than they are right now.”
Early in March, the university outlined plans to reopen, and opted to hold classes, excluding large lecture hall courses, in person. In this hybrid model, most students can choose to attend classes online, if they wish, with the exception of some practicum courses. Classes will be held through fall break, and in-person teaching will end by Thanksgiving. The university will quarantine those who test positive for coronavirus, and provide personal protective equipment. Additionally, students are required to submit a negative COVID-19 test before returning to school.
In a May 28 email, the university wrote that “In some ways, it would be easier simply to be online all fall,” but mentioned the “obvious financial risks” to that course of action. Like many schools around the country, UVA has been clear about its fears that an all-virtual semester would destroy tuition revenue.
So UVA’s administration has decided to forge ahead. “There inevitably will be greater risk in having students return,” the email reads, “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.”
Mounting evidence suggests that these steps—and this trust—won’t be enough to prevent students from spreading the virus among themselves and to the rest of the city. Although 92 percent of undergrads responded in a university survey that they would practice social distancing, mask wearing, and hand-washing, flocks of maskless students crowded corner bars and fraternity houses to celebrate during the weekend of July 11-12, the traditional party weekend called Midsummers.
Tyler Lee, a rising second-year, was one of those who took part in the Midsummers festivities. Over Instagram direct message, Lee recognized that “partying in the midst of a pandemic is not the best idea,” but said he expects students to continue partying once classes resume.
“I do not expect to see bars empty or a lack of people at parties in the fall,” Lee said. “I had my fun, even if it was for a short weekend.”
Following Midsummers, Dean of Students Allen Groves sent a scathing email to students, calling the partying “selfish and ignorant,” but failing to explain how the school would enforce safety at future large, student-held gatherings.
Ryan McKay, a senior policy analyst for the Thomas Jefferson Health District, says the state health apparatus is scaling up contact tracing and educational messaging, but noted that, ultimately, “there’s a concern if students aren’t wearing face coverings and not social distancing.”
“Even if we did say that restaurants needed to close,” McKay says, “we need to be concerned about social gatherings where we don’t have authority.”
Around 40 percent of UVA upperclassmen live in off-campus housing, which further complicates the picture because the university has very little control over what happens in those houses and apartments. Harvard University made headlines recently for its COVID prevention plan, which allows only 40 percent of students to return to campus, something it can more easily do because 97 percent of its undergraduates live in university housing. At UVA, students can decide to return to Charlottesville even if classes are held completely virtually.
UVA English professor Herbert Tucker recognizes that students behave much differently outside the classroom than in it.
“I’ve been in the business long enough to know that no matter how much homework-doing students are on the ball…they behave very differently with each other when they’re out of class,” he says. “The students infect each other…these are not fantasies, these things are certainly going to happen more frequently. This isn’t rocket science here.”
“The extreme that everyone should imagine is a fraternity party,” Tucker says. “Those events are going to happen.”
And while Tucker says the faculty can “take care of themselves,” citing UVA’s flexibility in allowing faculty to teach remotely, he worries about the staff and community members that students could infect with COVID-19.
“They won’t enter the students’ minds,” he says.
Residents in neighborhoods surrounding UVA, like 10th and Page, are particularly at risk of serious health complications stemming from coronavirus. The virus disproportionately affects Black Americans and those with underlying health conditions.
Dr. Taison Bell, an infectious disease, critical care physician, and the director of UVA’s medical intensive care unit, recognizes that risk, and says Charlottesville has to develop a safety plan that “has to be, more so than we’ve done in the past, integrated into the whole plan for the city and the region.”
As for making students practice social distancing, Bell says it’s “a little unclear” what can and cannot be enforced.
“One variable, or a big part that the community is concerned about, is how younger people will behave during their free time,” Bell says. “Will they behave in a responsible way…Or will they be potential drivers of infection?”
For decades, area residents have watched UVA students party their way across town. Now, the university has put forward a coronavirus containment plan that relies in large part on students choosing to act conscientiously.
“If we’re going to have a substantial amount of students,” Bell says, “then there needs to be a collective understanding that [they] have to behave differently than they have before.”