The University of Virginia’s leaders on Friday shared the following message with the community regarding the University’s plans for the fall academic semester:
arlier this month, we delayed the opening of undergraduate residence halls and the start of in-person undergraduate classes by two weeks. We did that to assess the spread of the virus, which was concerning to us, and to resolve some difficulties with the testing supply chain. It also allowed us to observe the early experiences of other universities, which have been quite mixed.
Today, we write to let you know that we are moving forward as planned. We plan to welcome students to residence halls beginning in early September and to begin in-person instruction for undergraduates on Tuesday, Sept. 8.
We know some will be delighted to hear this news and others will be disappointed. To be frank, it was a very difficult decision, made in the face of much uncertainty, and with full awareness that future events may force us to change course. Let us explain our rationale.
To begin, we believe the effort is worth it. Some critical parts of a college education cannot be replicated online. Some academic instruction, for sure, can be just as effective online; in other cases, it’s a challenge. Regardless, we know that the college experience is also about what happens outside of the classroom.
Especially at this university, a key part of that experience is the opportunity for our students to step out on their own, in a caring and protective environment, to find their own interests, to define their personal commitments, and to form friendships that will sustain them for many years, if not a lifetime. This is quite difficult, if not impossible, to do online.
Second, conditions locally and in Virginia have improved in terms of the prevalence of the virus, and concerns about the supply chain for testing materials have been addressed.
Third, we had a very encouraging experience over the summer, when thousands of students returned to Charlottesville and to Grounds. They included students working in labs, nursing and medical school students, student-athletes and now include all graduate and professional students. There is also a very large number of undergraduate students already in Charlottesville. It’s clear that the vast majority of students, faculty and staff are taking this seriously and following health and safety protocols. We have seen an uptick recently in cases at UVA, but that is to be expected with roughly 15,000 students already in Charlottesville, and the case numbers remain manageable.
Fourth, we’ve learned from what has happened at other schools. Over the last few weeks, we’ve developed more ambitious testing plans, created additional spaces for isolation and quarantine, and focused on communicating behavioral expectations. We’ve also learned that most outbreaks have been tied to off-campus gatherings, not to on-campus housing and not to classrooms. Indeed, our public health experts believe that classrooms are very low-risk environments. If we were to go all online and close our dorms, we would not be addressing the challenges that we have seen on other campuses.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the vast majority of our students will be here in Charlottesville, living in private houses and apartments, regardless of whether classes are all online or not. By welcoming our students into classrooms and on Grounds – with adequate testing, rules about gatherings and mask-wearing, and enforcement – we will be in a better position to monitor what’s happening and to contain any outbreaks. In short, given that most of our students are going to be here, we believe it will be better for everyone, including our Charlottesville neighbors, if our students feel connected to our community rather than apart from it.
We have made every effort to open the residence halls safely. To begin, our dorms for undergraduates will only be only two-thirds full – housing roughly 4,400 students, most of whom are first-years. We have modified the dorms to make social distancing easier, and we have plans to monitor wastewater coming out of dorms. If we find evidence of a potential outbreak, we will test everyone in the dorm.
We know some will disagree with this decision, which we deeply respect. We understand the concerns and share them. We care about the health and well-being not just of our faculty, staff, and students, but of our neighbors in the Charlottesville region. There are no easy answers here, and there are no risk-free paths. And while we can’t expect to persuade all who disagree, we can tell you that we have listened to all perspectives, have given this a great deal of thought, and are making what we believe is the best decision at this moment in time. And that is the decision to give this our very best effort.
It will not be easy. We know people will contract the virus and some will get sick. There will likely be outbreaks that we will have to work to contain. And it may be that we will have to change course. One thing we have learned from this virus is that you can do everything in your power to plan and prepare, but it still might not be enough, as things can change rapidly. That is why we will continue to monitor conditions closely and, if necessary, will put more restrictions in place, move classes online, and, if need be, send students home.
This will be a challenge for the entire UVA community and one that will require all of us doing our very best, every day, to make smart decisions, to care and look out for each other, and to follow the health and safety protocols. But with your best efforts and those of your friends and colleagues, we believe we have a chance to make this work. 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.
Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer
K. Craig Kent
Executive Vice President for Health Affairs