What We’ve Learned: Looking Back at a Pandemic Semester

December 10, 2020 By Caroline Newman, news@virginia.edu Caroline Newman, news@virginia.edu

At the beginning of the fall semester this year, questions were much more abundant than answers.

The University of Virginia had just come through an unprecedented spring, shifting courses online in about eight days in March as the COVID-19 pandemic hit and normal operations ground to a halt around the world. Even as the spring semester wrapped up, however, University leaders were turning their attention to planning for the fall, carefully ramping up research again and bringing some students back to Grounds.  

As they did so, they had many questions in mind. Would the protective measures the University put in place help slow the spread of COVID-19? Would students accept and embrace public health recommendations, like mask-wearing and gathering only in small groups? Would COVID-19 testing plans – including everything from saliva testing to wastewater analysis – help detect asymptomatic spread on Grounds? Would some semblance of college life continue, even as the COVID-19 pandemic slowed or shut down so many things?

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UVA staff member placing a sign on the door of a UVA building
Facilities Management staff worked hard to prepare Grounds for students’ return. Signs around Grounds reminded students of public health measures. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

In short, could UVA actually make it all work?

Now, as the end of the semester nears, administrators, faculty, staff and students have some answers, and some useful lessons. After countless hours of work that required a shared sense of purpose and a flexible approach to solving problems, the University completed an unprecedented academic semester – and now must prepare to do it all again after the new year.

Overall, UVA did well in terms of case numbers, keeping active virus cases at a manageable level, with no more than 311 active cases among students, faculty and staff at one time. The number of active new cases also declined dramatically during the course of the semester as UVA’s testing programs and capacity increased. By the end of in-person classes in late November, UVA was regularly recording days with fewer than 10 positive cases among students and employees, with some days recording zero new cases.

Ashley Hurst standing in front of a class teaching
Nursing professor Ashley Hurst taught an in-person class, with students carefully spaced out and wearing masks. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Public health measures minimized virus spread, especially in academic settings like classrooms, libraries and laboratories, and UVA used only a fraction of the 1,500 quarantine and isolation rooms available at any given time. Students, for the most part, were careful about complying with recommendations and eager to help stop the virus from spreading on Grounds and in the Charlottesville community.

“This was a remarkably challenging semester – I would imagine one of the most challenging semesters that the University has ever faced,” President Jim Ryan said in a virtual town hall for staff on Monday. “It required us to work in different ways and tackle problems we have never tackled before.”

He likened the experience to building a plane while flying it: “We learned a lot, and we will now be in a better position going into the spring because of all we experienced this fall,” Ryan said. “And one of the things we learned most as an institution, which will put us in good shape for the spring, is that when we work together, we can do really hard things.

“This was an incredibly hard semester, and by working together, we were able to make it through successfully.”

There were plenty of changes in the fall, many of them very visible, like masked students walking to class or lecterns sectioned off with clear plastic dividers. UVA Facilities Management staff fabricated and installed more than 800 of those dividers, as well as more than 38,000 safety signage decals and 2,600 free-standing hand sanitizer stations. The University also purchased 42,000 face coverings for employees, as well as 25,000 “Welcome Back Kits” for students, which contained two cloth face masks, hand sanitizer and a hands-free touch tool for opening doors or operating elevators.

The investments in safety equipment paid off, University leaders said in several virtual town halls. There were no known cases of virus transmission in classrooms, and with that in mind, administrators and faculty members are planning to increase the number of in-person courses offered in the spring, while still adhering to the public health guidelines that proved so successful. Faculty members are also exploring additional options for in-person instruction, including rotating students through in cohorts, so that large courses can meet in in-person in smaller groups.

UVA Facilities Management Staff Member, Sandra Payne, sanitizes Plexiglass  in the Science & Engineering Library
Sandra Payne of Facilities Management cleans and disinfects a clear plastic shield in the Charles L. Brown Science & Engineering Library. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

When cases of the virus did arise, various testing programs offered important tools for identifying those carrying the virus and preventing further spread. Testing options included more than 18,000 pre-arrival testing kits for students through the vendor Let’s Get Checked; testing for symptomatic students, faculty and staff offered through Student and Employee Health; prevalence testing among students; self-administered test kits or appointments for asymptomatic staff; a rapid-response saliva testing program; and a wastewater analysis program that proved especially helpful in quickly detecting and preventing possible outbreaks in dormitories. These programs were often built from scratch and launched in a matter of weeks, and staff worked around the clock to ensure their success.

“Our experience affirmed that no single tool could address the threat of the virus,” said Dr. Mitch Rosner, chair of the Department of Medicine and a key medical adviser in the University’s plans for fall and spring. “We found we had the best chance for minimizing its spread with a combination of robust testing, quick responses to positive cases, and the consistent emphasis on mask-wearing, hand-washing and avoiding large gatherings. You need all of those things, and they only work if the entire University community is sharing in the effort.”

UVA’s Wastewater Surveillance System

Led by Dr. Amy Mathers, an infectious disease physician, and Lisa Colosi-Peterson, an associate professor of engineering systems and environment, UVA developed and deployed the wastewater analysis program focused on samples from student dormitories. It acted as an early warning system, alerting staff to unusual spikes of virus material and providing important information to help guide next steps in those residence halls.

By the end of the semester, students living on Grounds were tested at least once every nine days and UVA had conducted 51,447 student tests, including PCR tests, saliva tests and self-administered test kits, from when students arrived to the last day of courses on Nov. 24. All students, whether or not they lived in University housing, had the opportunity to take a test before they left for the Thanksgiving break.

University leaders plan to continue that level of testing coverage – for all students living on- and off-Grounds – during the spring semester, and to provide weekly testing for faculty and staff who are working in person. UVA will once again require all students returning to Grounds or the Charlottesville/Albemarle community for the spring semester to take a self-administered, pre-arrival test.

Lab worker running Saliva Testing for Covid-19
Saliva screening allowed UVA to quickly test large groups of people. (Photos by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

For students who did contract the virus, staff built up a steady support network, working to make sure they were well cared for in quarantine or isolation housing, which included some dormitories, apartment complexes and hotels in the Charlottesville area.

The dean on call and an Isolation and Quarantine care team, run through the Office of Student Affairs, helped students arrange safe transportation to their temporary housing, connected them with resources for both physical and mental health and stayed in contact through the quarantine and isolation period, while University Dining arranged for daily meal deliveries.

Student organizations also pitched in, arranging care packages – even musical care packages – for their peers. Other student groups worked to put together public service announcements about health guidelines, or create a #YouVA social media campaign encouraging students to keep their peers and community safe and keeping them informed about public health recommendations.

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And, though it was far different than normal, college life did continue in many ways, both in-person and online.

Class sections and clubs met, either masked in small groups or online; athletic teams practiced and played, conscientiously following the protective measures put in place to help them compete safely; IM-REC spaced out exercise equipment and planned outdoor hikes, pool nights and other adventures to help students get together; resident advisers worked hard to help first-year students adjust; University Dining still put on a physically distanced Thanksgiving meal; musical ensembles sang in gardens rather than in practice rooms or concert halls; and the Lighting of the Lawn tradition continued, though attendees had to watch it on a screen instead of among a throng of thousands.

In ways large and small, Hoos worked to build a sense of community – and learned just how important that sense of community is.

Looking to the green hill from the top bleachers on the opposite side of Scotts Stadium
Very few fans, mostly players’ families, were allowed in Scott Stadium to keep with the state’s 1,000-person limit. Student-athletes followed strict safety protocols. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

And now, Ryan has said repeatedly, it is important to remain optimistic, and also remain humble. The close of this semester, and of this long year, has brought promise of a vaccine – a light at the end of the tunnel – but concerns remain. Cold weather will pose challenges, bringing people indoors more, limiting outdoor gatherings and fostering other illnesses like the flu or common colds, often confused with COVID-19. Mask-wearing, physical distancing and careful handwashing and cleaning will remain important.

“Normal” – the full classrooms, roaring crowds and swaying to the “Good Old Song” that we all want to see – is still a ways away. Students, faculty, staff and administrators will need to apply all of the lessons they have learned, and remain ready to adapt to whatever the coming months bring. With that attitude, and continued support for the health care workers, scientists and researchers who are working to bring this pandemic to an end, there is hope that end of the spring semester will look much different than this one.