Within an hour of confirming 25 student and 11 employee cases of COVID-19, Virginia Commonwealth University unveiled an online dashboard billed as a transparent accounting of the potentially fatal virus’s footprint in the campus community.
Of the student cases, 11 involve people who are living on campus, said VCU spokesman Mike Porter. Those students are now in isolation, reflected in the dashboard alongside confirmed cases, testing data and self-quarantine numbers the school plans to update daily, Monday through Friday.
“We would not identify details that could compromise the privacy of a student or employee but each time there is a case of COVID-19 confirmed by the Virginia Department of Health, student health or employee health will get in touch directly with those who have come into close contact with the person to begin two weeks of self-quarantine and health monitoring,” Porter said.
As college campuses across the country grapple with bringing students back, some have quickly shuttered, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which closed Monday after being open for a week. VCU opened Monday.
In a mass email announcing the dashboard, VCU President Michael Rao urged students to keep their social gatherings to fewer than 10 people, to practice social distancing and to always wear a mask.
Shortly after the email went out, students could be seen sprawled across Monroe Park, playing cornhole, volleyball and pingpong. Others sipped on coffee. Most were not wearing masks.
Sabya Satya, a senior psychology major, sat outside the Shafer Court Dining Center, immersed in work.
“I don’t know how well they [VCU] have prepared us, especially the freshmen,” Satya said, noting she has seen large groups of students hanging out. She said she is happy to be back at school, but “I don’t know if it was a good decision to come back,” she said.
In an alert email sent to the VCU and VCU Health community Thursday night and obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the university said eight student cases resulted “from a party.”
“VCU is writing to inform you of a group of community acquired COVID-19 cases that may pose a serious or continuing threat to campus safety,” the email states.
When asked if VCU is considering transitioning to remote learning only, Porter said there are “dozens of variables” that could impact such a decision. VCU’s Public Health Response Team and Incident Coordination Team consistently reviews state health department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, he said.
The University of Virginia’s Return to Grounds website states that the school will follow the advice of public health experts and any order from the state health department. James Madison University will also follow state orders, monitor local hospital capacities and positive case numbers and testing resources at the university, according to its website. Virginia Tech launched a COVID-19 dashboard on Wednesday.
Sporting a green mask Thursday at Monroe Park, Aya Daniels, a sophomore who lives on-campus, was waiting for her friend to bring her some garden tomatoes. They decided to meet at the park because of it being an outdoor, large space, Daniels said.
“I’m super concerned about what VCU is doing,” Daniels said. “It is inevitable at this point [to transition to remote learning].
“I would rather not settle in and pack up my stuff and go home then risk getting a case and giving it to my mom,” Daniels, a sculpture major, added.
Haley Leis, a political science major, lives off-campus a couple of blocks away but comes to in-person classes a couple days a week.
“I felt obligated to come back because I wanted to graduate on time,” said Leis, a senior. However, she doesn’t feel safe, noting that while students are wearing their masks in classrooms, many aren’t wearing them when walking outside.
Leis has COVIDWISE, the recently released statewide app that uses Bluetooth technology to alert people when they have come in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Virginia was the first state to release COVIDWISE, a collaboration between Apple and Google.
“I don’t trust VCU to notify people [with the app] and I don’t trust people to say they are sick,” Leis said.
Porter did not directly rumors circulating on social media that upward of 30 students in a freshman dorm have tested positive for COVID-19; Leis said she hasn’t received any notifications and neither have any of her underclassmen friends.
All VCU students returning to on-campus housing were required to be tested for coronavirus before arrival. Of the residential tests, 4,380 tested negative and 15 were positive.
As of Thursday, VCU has an enrollment of 28,359, Porter said. The school is offering in-person and online classes and the university’s dorms are home to more than 4,000 students in space designed for more than 6,200.
Of VCU’s enrollment, 4,504 students live on campus. Residential Life and Housing is unaware of any student moving out because of COVID-19, Porter said.
Nearly 100 students on Monday protested the school’s decision to reopen during the pandemic, its reliance on underpaid workers rather than full-time faculty and about the police presence on campus.
VCU 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.
Carnival on Cary, an annual Weeks of Welcome event at VCU, is scheduled for Saturday. In groups of 40 or less, students can sign up for an hour slot. There will be prizes, snacks, music, caricature artists and a magician at Cary Street Field, according to a VCU flier. The carnival will have seven one-hour sessions.
“If I can’t be in a class with 40 people I don’t see how they [VCU] can do a carnival for 40 people,” Leis said. “Seems like VCU is more concerned about students not leaving than students saying safe.”
Porter said cleaning will occur after each session, masks are required and there will be a voluntarily temperature check.
In April, following the closure of the college, VCU projected around $50 million in lost revenue, $13 million of that due to refunds and credits to part-time students. The college did not refund any tuition during that time.