It’s 11am on Thursday, November 19. The U.S. has reached an all-time high for COVID-19 infections in a single day. Colleges have reported record-high numbers as well, contributing to around 2 percent of national infections, according to the New York Times.
And UVA President Jim Ryan has declared victory.
In a video posted to the school’s website, Ryan said the university had accomplished “what many said couldn’t be done,” and showed the world “what being a great and good university looks like.”
It’s true that UVA has largely avoided the uncontrolled spread that worried community members in the summer, when the university first announced its plan to welcome students back to Grounds. At the time, Virginia was experiencing a Memorial Day spike in COVID-19 cases and inching out of its initial Phase 1 restrictions. After college students gathered en masse for the traditional Midsummer’s party weekend, some community leaders sounded the alarm.
“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,” Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker said at a virtual press conference over the summer.
Some at the university also pushed back against in-person classes. The United Campus Workers union and Student Council both petitioned for an all-virtual semester. In early September, student and community activists held a die-in demonstration where 50 people protested by feigning dead on the Rotunda steps and the Lawn.
Three months later, the semester is in the books. (Students left Grounds before Thanksgiving, a little earlier than usual.) Since August, the university has identified just under 1,300 COVID-19 infections among students, faculty, and staff, a number the administration has deemed a success. Those cases resulted in zero deaths and zero hospitalizations, reports university spokesman Brian Coy.
“There were a lot of people who were skeptical that students, or the rest of our community, would follow those behaviors closely enough to avoid a major outbreak,” says J.J. Davis, UVA’s chief operating officer. “However, as a whole, this community showed that we were capable of coming together and doing the right things to protect each other and keep the semester on track.”
Provost Liz Magill says the university faced “impossible odds” when the coronavirus pandemic halted operations in March. She cited measures such as the high amount of isolation and quarantine beds, increased testing, and restrictions on gatherings when cases spiked. The measures “weren’t easy” but ultimately the university “overcame historic obstacles,” Magill says.
An aggressive testing operation lies at the center of the school’s COVID prevention plan. As the semester wore on, UVA instituted a mandatory testing policy, periodically calling all students living in the area to report to the Central Grounds Parking Garage for a spit test. From November 15-21, as the semester wrapped up, the school conducted 9,453 tests. Virginia has 25,000 undergraduate and graduate students living on Grounds this fall; for comparison, Virginia Tech, a school of 34,000 students, conducted 4,910 tests during that same week in November. This semester, Tech has detected around 1,600 cases.
At the beginning of the semester, UVA created 1,500 quarantine beds for students who had been exposed to the virus. The ability to shift students into this quarantine housing proved pivotal in the early fall. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had to send students back home during the first week of in-person classes, when cases shot up and quarantine rooms dwindled to the single digits. UVA experienced a similar spike in cases during its first week of in-person classes (UNC had 130, UVA 199) but the school’s supply of quarantine beds was large enough to weather the storm.
Additionally, testing allowed UVA to monitor residence halls and identify clusters in places like the Balz-Dobie and Hancock residence halls. Regular dorm wastewater testing combined with mandatory dorm resident testing kept infections from exploding on Grounds.
Dr. Taison Bell, a pulmonary and critical care physician and graduate student who also works in the UVA hospital’s COVID-19 ICU, thinks the university learned its lesson from other colleges across the country.
“A lot of peer institutions were having issues with large-scale COVID outbreaks,” Bell says. “So maybe it was a combination of learning lessons from those institutions and effective messaging at the university.”
Laying down the law
Even with that containment structure in place, videos periodically surfaced during the semester that showed troubling scenes for those who had hoped to see social distancing.
In October, an anonymous student sent a video to CBS19 of students packing, mask-less, into the first floor of Trinity Irish Pub on the Corner. Weeks before, Ryan signaled out bars specifically in a video message sent to the UVA community, saying “If you can’t stay six feet apart, don’t go in.”
“It seems hypocritical to me that the administration tries to pretend like they’re enforcing these rules when in reality there are these events that are happening,” an anonymous student told CBS19 at the time.
Days later, students were seen waiting in long lines to enter bars on Halloween weekend.
Davis concedes there were “some issues of noncompliance,” but the school responded by laying down the law, tightening restrictions after the potential super-spreader weekend.
“There were a couple times where more strict messaging had to go out to the university community,” Bell says. “But it seems like, after that happened, the prevalence [of the virus] overall went down and the system wasn’t strained…I think overall they did a really good job.”
The Balz-Dobie and Hancock clusters prompted new gathering restrictions early in the semester, barring students from gathering in groups of more than five people. The university’s ambassadors, a school-run safety force that patrols areas on and off Grounds, enforced the rules strictly, and violations could result in academic punishments.
In a September video, Ryan alluded to several interim suspensions of students failing to adhere to social distancing policies. The university’s policy directory states that students cannot hold an event, indoors or out, that includes multiple groups from different households. The policy also outlines the face mask and social distancing requirements.
Fourth-year Hallie Griffiths says the stricter penalties had a real effect. “I know friends that would have gathered in bigger groups regardless of safety because they felt that if they got sick, they would be fine,” but they didn’t want to get expelled, she says.
The looming terror of the virus made it a strange time to be a student, Griffiths adds. In addition to the interruption of extracurricular activities, classes, and Greek life, students had to cope with ever-changing rules, the complexities of online classes, and fears of infection.
Constant safety adjustments were a whirlwind as well. The university has updated and added information to its Return to Grounds plan at least 24 times since August 4, an experience Griffiths says was “confusing and frustrating.”
“Every week there was a new email and a lot of people’s lives were turned to chaos,” she says. “And then we would adjust and then there’d be a new email.”
“It was scary in the sense that all of us came into it not really knowing what to expect and then it very quickly became very real,” Griffiths says. “All the traditions are gone. Time is stopped in one place but also going very fast. …Especially with classes ending this week, I’ve realized that time is gone and I’ll never get it back.”
A central concern for observers in town was the possibility of community spread, especially for vulnerable communities surrounding the university. Although cases spiked at UVA in September and October, the numbers don’t suggest that on-Grounds cases resulted in large numbers of city and county residents getting sick.
But while UVA was cracking down on restrictions, the city was as well.
“Coronavirus ordinances in Albemarle and Charlottesville that were passed were aimed at being in conjunction with UVA returning,” says City Councilor Michael Payne.
In the summer, Charlottesville imposed more severe gathering restrictions than the rest of the state, in part to mitigate the effect of students returning. In Charlottesville, restaurants were unable to operate at more than 50 percent capacity and people weren’t allowed to gather in groups of more than 50.
“I think UVA was taking a huge risk in terms of having all these students come back,” Payne says.
“They have been able to prevent a massive community spread in a worst-case scenario. So in that sense it’s definitely been successful,” the city councilor continues. “But there’s no way around it: When you have that many people coming into the community, you’re going to see a big spike in cases, and that’s what we did see.”
And of course, the story is far from over. Students will return for the spring semester in February. As cold weather drives groups inside and students travel back to Charlottesville from COVID hot spots, the university could once again become dicey terrain. Referencing the cold weather and spring semester, Magill said that “vigilance will be more important than ever.”
“I’m never going to say that I feel comfortable with where things are, because there’s always the possibility that things can break loose,” says Bell. “But what I will say is that, in general, our area has done fairly well with controlling the pandemic compared to a lot of areas of the country…I think this means that, going forward, we have to keep that same diligence up.”