Hitting home: Coronavirus closings rattle Charlottesville

Volunteers put sandwiches in plastic bags at the PB&J Fund on Monday. Photo: Zach Wajsgras Volunteers put sandwiches in plastic bags at the PB&J Fund on Monday. Photo: Zach Wajsgras

Virginia reported its first two coronavirus cases on March 9. By March 13, Charlottesville and Albemarle’s governments had each declared a local state of emergency and Governor Ralph Northam had ordered all public schools in Virginia to close for at least two weeks. Charlottesville’s first positive COVID-19 case was announced on March 16, and as of March 19, there have been three more positive cases. Schools and other institutions around the city have been scrambling to adjust, and at press time, many local restaurants and businesses were temporarily shutting down or had switched to delivery only. Here’s a rundown on some of the biggest changes that have happened this week.

Our schools

In times of crisis, strong communities rally together. That spirit was on full display at the PB&J Fund Monday morning, when a dozen volunteers bustled about, sorting donations into lunch packages for students who wouldn’t have access to food while their schools were closed.

“We are packing up lunches for 300 kids in the city today,” said Executive Director Alex London-Gross. “We are so grateful that the elementary school PTOs in the city were mobilized, and really have done a great job getting these donations pouring in.”

Starting on Tuesday, both the city and county schools picked up where the PB&J fund and the PTOs left off, providing grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches at several area locations during the school shutdown. (For more information about food pickup times and places, go to www.charlottesvilleschools.org. In the county, visit www.k12albemarle.org.)

The rapidly escalating situation means schools have been forced to work on the fly to continue to provide some facsimile of their normal services.

“We are talking to principals, and teachers soon, about how to stay connected to students while they’re at home,” says Albemarle County Schools Strategic Communications Officer Phil Giaramita. The school will offer optional, ungraded “self-directed learning activities,” as well as opportunities for teachers to check in on the social and emotional state of their students as the closures continue.

Though some parents will be working from home, many people still have to go to work, potentially leaving young children unsupervised. The city and county schools are looking for ways to provide childcare for families who might not otherwise have access, though firm plans have not been announced.

“Everybody’s working really hard to come up with solutions,” says Krissy Vick, the city school’s community relations liaison. “This is all so fluid.”

Our university

Like many universities around the country, UVA decided to move all its classes online, urging students not to come back to school after spring break ended on March 16.

“My first reaction was being sad,” says UVA Student Council President Ellie Brasacchio. “As a graduating fourth-year, it’s very possible that my undergraduate career just ended. What’s giving me hope and optimism is I think the university’s response to all of this has been very good, particularly in their response to helping first-generation and low-income students.”

The school has given money to help students with travel-related expenses, and Student Council has created a program to pair students in need with donors looking to help.

In the classroom, the shift to online learning will require instructors to get creative. Andrew Garcia, a fourth-year history and politics major, says it feels like the school didn’t give the faculty much guidance on how to make the transition.

“My Italian class, our final grade is on an in-person movie that we’re supposed to make,” Garcia says, an assignment that is now impossible. “How are you going to grade things? People are going to have unequal resources. My books are [in Charlottesville]. I live eight hours away.”

Some students don’t have reliable internet access at home, which will make online classes especially difficult.

Brasacchio and Garcia note that many students are returning to Charlottesville despite the directive to stay away. President Jim Ryan repeatedly urged students to head home, but also shared a heartfelt message offering sympathy to everyone who had been “pouring their hearts into something that will now not happen.”

The university’s closure will also have serious effects on the school’s student workers, university staff, and contract workers. Gyms, dining halls, libraries, and other facilities will either close completely or be open for limited hours. Arielle Hogan is a technician at a biology lab in the medical school. She says she doesn’t know if she would continue to get paid if the lab has to shut down.

As of Tuesday afternoon, some dining halls and libraries, as well as the parking system, were still operating as normal, despite the spread of the virus. UVA spokesperson Brian Coy says the school is aware of the situation, and is working to assist its staff, but that a plan hasn’t been finalized yet.

“Everyone kind of went into response mode,” Coy says. “No one’s ever done anything like this.”

Our shelters

People experiencing homelessness are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. With Salvation Army shelters at capacity and overnight shelter program PACEM facing a shortage of volunteers, downtown day shelter The Haven has stepped in to house guests overnight. The Haven was granted exceptions to its special use permit for the duration of Charlottesville’s state of emergency, per a resolution passed at Monday’s City Council meeting.

PACEM has had to significantly reduce its volunteer force due to the coronavirus threat.

“Manpower is going to become a real issue going forward,” says Jayson Whitehead, executive director of PACEM. “[We] rely heavily on volunteer involvement, and some of our congregations have an aged population—those folks are appropriately concerned about coming into our environment.”

With the volunteers it has now, PACEM has been screening each guest for symptoms of COVID-19 before admitting them to its host sites, and has sent one guest they feared had the virus to UVA hospital (his results came back negative). It’s also implemented social distancing, making sure there’s six feet in between all cots, and provided some guests with face masks—but desperately needs more, along with gloves, Whitehead says.

Meanwhile, The Haven has also implemented a range of policies to keep its guests, staff, and volunteers safe, including asking all volunteers and staff who are high-risk to stay home, and assembling a low-risk volunteer task force to assist remaining staff. Everyone must wash or sanitize their hands before entering the building.

“The real problem is for someone who is in that circumstance, they can’t practice social distancing, at least not in the same way,” says Steven Hitchcock, executive director of The Haven. “We’re trying to be responsive to that and keep the community safe.”

Other organizations that support at-risk communities have faced different challenges. With panicked shoppers wiping out the aisles at grocery stores around town, local food pantries like Loaves & Fishes have gotten the short end of the stick. The pantry receives nearly half of its food supplies directly from grocery stores, and has noticed a significant decrease in donations in recent days. When Wegmans—one of the pantry’s largest bakery donors—only donated one loaf of bread on Friday, “we realized that might be a new normal,” said Executive Director Jane Colony Mills.

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Quote of the Week

“The coronavirus pandemic is giving us a window into what it looks to shift our lives when there is a major change in our safety status. Climate change is going to do the exact same thing to us that the coronavirus is doing to us now.”

—local resident Emily Little on the proposed city budget not including climate change funding

 

 

Updated 3/19 to reflect current number of coronavirus cases in Charlottesville

Posted In:     Coronavirus

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