Savannah Gross, a theater major at Virginia Commonwealth University, sat outside on Thursday, unmasked but socially distant, in a campus courtyard with two of her friends.
In the week since moving into her apartment, she had been told that her archaeology class didn’t have enough space to safely socially distance and a contact tracer had been in touch with her after a COVID-19 scare with her roommate.
“It just seems like no one really knows how to handle it,” said Gross, whose roommate tested negative for the virus.
She and her friends said they feel like VCU is trying to make life safe during a pandemic for the 4,000 students who will live on a campus built to house more than 6,200. But they’ve also created a strict code where they hang out only with people in their own small circle because they don’t trust that everyone on campus will follow social distancing guidelines.
Richmond has seen a small uptick in the rate and number of coronavirus cases over the past month, with new positive tests in the city hovering at about 30 per day. The city’s public schools won’t hold in-person classes this semester.
VCU will hold most of its classes online, but the university’s dorms will also be home to more than 4,000 students who started moving in over the weekend. Classes begin Monday.
VCU’s safety plan for maintaining social distancing means only six desks can safely fit in some classrooms. There are disinfecting wipes in the corner of all classrooms, and masks are mandatory. Repeated failure to comply with social distancing rules can result in suspension. Parties and other large gatherings won’t be allowed.
Dining halls will be open during regular business hours, and the college is working on touchless payment options, according to the university’s website. For athletic facilities, masks are required, and students must reserve an entrance slot. Water stations are now hands-free.
At the University of Richmond, there are even tougher stipulations for students in regard to large gatherings. If off-campus students hold gatherings, they’ll risk being suspended for the semester. If students who live on campus hold gatherings, they’ll risk eviction from campus.
Senior Bianca Eaton, who started a petition opposing in-person instruction at VCU, said the college’s 24-page reopening plan relies too much on self-accountability from students.
VCU’s plan requires students to monitor their own health by taking daily surveys that monitor symptoms, testing themselves before arriving on campus, and being responsible for cleaning their own workspaces and belongings.
“It just takes one person to slip up in any capacity for people to get sick,” she said. She said she was shocked that VCU would be allowing students to attend in person since Richmond’s public school system decided it couldn’t safely open classrooms. “We need to be setting a better example as higher education.”
Eaton took issue with VCU allowing teachers to decide whether to hold classes in person. Her mother has a compromised immune system, so attending class on campus is out of the question for her.
Eaton isn’t the only person worried about walking into a classroom. Julia Park, an incoming sophomore at VCU, said her introduction to English class will be in person, and she doesn’t understand why.
“I’m definitely apprehensive,” she said. “There was a picture of people putting down this tape to measure the desks as part of the classroom. Just looking at that, I was thinking it feels a little apocalyptic. It’s very surreal to see that and imagine what it’s actually going to be like.”
The university will be doing prevalence testing, where 2% of students who don’t live on campus will be voluntarily tested at no cost, and 5% who do live on campus will be tested weekly. According to the reopening plan, testing for those who are symptomatic will occur at VCU Medical Center and will come “at a cost,” which has not been determined.
“It feels like a money grab to me,” junior Shawn Blake said of VCU beginning the school year in person. He said he wasn’t sure how the college would manage to thwart a COVID-19 outbreak given his past time on campus. “Every time flu season comes around, everyone gets sick.”
In an interview, Mike Porter, a VCU spokesman, said the decision to reopen was focused on student success and not money.
“The decision about how we’re conducting the fall semester had nothing to do with money and everything to do with safety,” Porter said. “We heard from many students and staff, too, that they want to have this. Many of them want to have a session in person. That’s part of the college experience. There’s no way to prevent infections, but we can reduce the risk.”
In April, following the closure of the college, VCU projected around $50 million in revenue loss, $13 million of that due to refunds and credits to part-time students. The college did not refund any tuition during that time despite many demands from students.
The New York Times found more than 6,600 coronavirus cases linked to college campuses since the start of the pandemic, and some colleges are already experiencing outbreaks as students return to campus. VCU will be contending with the same challenges.
“I think we have set up guidelines that build on one another,” said Tom Briggs, VCU’s vice president of safety and risk management. “If you add on all the other cleaning we’re doing, if you add on what we’re doing in case someone gets sick, all of that builds on a series of controls that I think manage the risks pretty well.”
Many of the items to help students monitor their own health on campus and extra cleaning supplies were purchased with part of the $20.2 million in CARES Act funds that the university received to financially assist students.
Dr. Danny Avula, who directs the Richmond and Henrico County health departments, said VCU leaders have been thoughtful about how they’re reopening.
“They’re only bringing back about 4,000 students, which is good,” he said. “They have a really solid surveillance and contact tracing program in place, and there’s a whole other host of things they’ve been doing like how they’ve changed up dining and the cleaning schedule they’ve offered for the dorms.”
The university said it has the capacity to test a few hundred people per day. It also has been in consistent contact with the city’s health department in seeking advice on how to properly reopen.
Sophomore Jaylen Hargrove said he thinks VCU has offered enough for students to be safe and that it depends on whether they choose to follow the stipulations.
“I was a little freaked out at first. I think as long as everyone follows protocol, I’m not really too nervous about it,” he said. “It’s definitely a bummer that campus opportunities are sort of closed off or altered.”