By Amelia Delphos
For as long as communications departments have existed, big institutions have dumped their controversial news on Friday afternoon. Sure enough, UVA’s decision to move ahead as planned—with students living on Grounds and attending in-person classes—was announced via email after 4pm last Friday.
The announcement—its timing, its style, let alone its content—was the latest university communication in a summer full of emails and videos that have left a bad taste in many students’ mouths.
Since classes transitioned online in March, UVA students have been inundated with plans and promises from the administration, regarding a safe return to Grounds this fall in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Subject lines such as “Updates to our Fall 2020 Plan” or “COVID Resources, Move-In Dates, Employee Testing” can be found in every UVA inbox. On August 22, students received a message with a subject line reading “Important Message from Dean Allen Groves.”
This “Important Message” was a link to an eight-minute video where Groves, the university’s dean of students, addressed the undergraduate student body in a nondescript room in front of an out-of-focus backdrop with the UVA logo.
In the video, Groves detailed the new COVID-19 policies for students, and laid out the repercussions for disobeying these policies—most likely suspension for a semester or more.
“We want you to be here, if your own health and safety permit,” said Groves. “But I need every one of you to do your part to make that happen.”
Trinity Moore, a second-year from Raleigh, North Carolina, is scheduled to move into Bice House with her sister on August 31. She did not watch Groves’ address.
“I didn’t watch it because I knew it was going to be saying the same things like all the other emails, ‘the students are going to have to work together to make sure that COVID doesn’t impact our campus hard’ and all of that stuff, blah blah blah,” Moore says. “…There’s no new reactions from me.”
Heather Thomas, a fourth-year from Fairfax, Virginia, watched the video. She didn’t like the format because, to her, it felt like Groves was on the offensive: “It seemed like he was attacking us for doing nothing wrong. It was a little bit premature.”
Additionally, the video undermined previous attempts to rally the community together, says third-year Sarandon Elliott. “I feel like that video was almost to divide us. It almost felt like you were in a dystopia. Every man for himself.”
In Friday’s final, decisive email, UVA President Jim Ryan writes, “This semester will not be easy, as we have said, but the UVA community has faced challenges before. Let’s meet this moment, and this extraordinary challenge, together.”
Some say all the self-congratulation and thinly-veiled elitism has made the actual decision-making process more obscure.
“Instead of being honest and upfront with students, they’re trying to make it seem like they have things under control, which of course no university can since we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” Moore says.
In May, the university wrote that reopening plans meant “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.” Now, with first-years arriving in a few days, students feel wary and mistrustful. “They don’t really care if we’re on Grounds,” Thomas says. “I think they care that they can collect full tuition.”