Four weeks after they were sent home, students returned to campus Monday at James Madison University in Harrisonburg with only 31 active COVID-19 cases of the 1,522 reported since July 1.
With new safety rules, more testing and 300 more isolation beds, university leaders say they’re confident that this time they can keep the spread of the coronavirus in check.
But some students who spoke with the Richmond Times-Dispatch said they were worried the college never listened to their concerns before bringing students back.
When JMU first brought its students on campus in late August, the start of the semester quickly went sour. It tallied 772 coronavirus cases a mere nine days after classes began, the highest case count among Virginia colleges. Students expressed concerns about reopening guidelines like social distancing in dining halls and in on-campus gatherings going unenforced.
Members of the JMU administration briefed the university’s board of visitors about the reopening plan on Sept. 18 in an online meeting, though there was never a formal vote from the board on aspects of the plan, said university spokesperson Caitlyn Read.
The board decided against allowing public comment during the meeting, instead sending people with concerns to an online form advertised as ”written input with the board regarding JMU’s plans for resuming in-person learning and full campus operations.”
The Google Doc, which was still open as of Monday evening, allows anyone to submit concerns and ideas to the board as JMU planned to resume in-person classes.
According to JMU’s student newspaper, The Breeze, 650 written comments were submitted before the meeting. But the board didn’t receive the comments prior to that, according to Read.
The board was told 12 days after that meeting it would receive a link to the comments after The Breeze received them, according to an email from board secretary Donna Harper that the Richmond Times-Dispatch obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Harper’s email, sent last Wednesday, also directed board members to allow Rector Lara Major to respond to questions from reporters.
Read said in an email that historically, attendance at board meetings — with the exception of tuition meetings — has been very low, adding that when there was a digital way to submit feedback, they had gotten a bigger response.
She said JMU’s response to COVID-19 was developed by university leadership with consultation from the board, medical experts at the university, the Virginia Department of Health and task forces.
Read did not respond Monday when asked how much of a say the board, which is the governing body of the university, had in the decision to reopen this October and who made the final decision about reopening.
Read said all comments submitted to the university, including the comments submitted to the board, were considered and continue to be as the university moves forward with the reopening.
“The purpose of the comments was not to inform a specific vote or decision by the BOV at the September 18 meeting, but rather to provide feedback on an ongoing basis as the circumstances continue to evolve,” Read said in an email Thursday. “We continue to receive such comments and expect to continue to do so.”
In addition to the public comments submitted to the board, the university also received thousands of comments via calls to the university’s health center and emails to the president’s office and a special COVID-19 email address, all of which were taken into consideration, Read said.
“What we know is that there are people on every side of this,” she said. “There’s a large contingent of students that want to be entirely online. There’s a large contingent of students and family that want to be here in person. We are, at our core, an institution that offers a phenomenal in-person experience. That’s why these students expressed interest in coming here in the first place.
“And so if we’re able to safely resume those operations, we’re going to do that. It’s in our nature and it’s the experience that students have come to expect.”
Read, Harper and Major did not respond to questions from The Times-Dispatch on Monday about why the board did not have access to the comments until after The Breeze asked about them.
Board members Christopher Falcon and Maggie Ragon, when reached by phone on Thursday, directed The Times-Dispatch’s questions back to Major. Requests for comment from each of the other 13 members of JMU’s board of visitors went unanswered.
Norman Jones III, a senior who’s serving his second term as the student representative to the board, said he did not receive Harper’s email or a link to the public comments. He was not aware of the email until asked about it by The Times-Dispatch. Jones said he normally gets correspondence from the board in regard to scheduled meetings, but there was no specified pattern for communication for matters outside that.
As student representative to the board, Jones does not get a direct vote or final say in board decisions, but his role is ”to provide information and advice as deemed appropriate by the rector or chair of the committee,” per the board of visitors manual.
“We’re in a moment where we need to be transparent,” Jones said. “We’re in a lot of crises. And we have to make sure everyone’s on the same page. I mean, sure, we can talk about it for publicity’s sake, but I think more importantly, if we want to solve problems, we have to all be willing to communicate.”
Opinions in the online comments varied. The Breeze reported that of the 650 comments received before the board meeting, those who said they wanted to stay online or resume in-person operations were split at 190 and 184, respectively.
Others suggested changes in the way classes work, entry testing and harsher punishment for those who do not abide by the rules.
James Toscano, president of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust that pushes for increased accountability and transparency in higher education, successfully co-led an effort to get JMU to livestream its Sept. 18 board meeting. While Toscano’s group pushed for public comment, JMU countered with the comment forum.
He was a part of the creation of a law requiring public comment at board meetings having to do with tuition, and while Toscano says JMU’s situation is a little different, it was still a decision that affects many.
“When a public governing board solicits feedback from their students then neglects to consider any of it before making such a consequential decision, it confirms students’ suspicions that decision makers are more concerned with the appearance of listening than actually doing so,” Toscano said.
When JMU first started fall classes, students and families were sent a survey asking whether they wanted to come back. Read said that for many, in-person instruction was a first choice. There was no survey before administrators decided to reopen, another sign some students say shows their voices went unheard.
Lexie Novis, a junior who works as a residential assistant in Hillside’s Bell Hall, said she felt like it was “hypocritical” that the administration was making decisions on whether to return to classes over Zoom while workers like the housekeeping staff have to be the ones taking the risks.
Jones said communication is something he’s been “trying to hit home” throughout the process.
“It’s silence or absence of communication, and it leaves room for assumption,” Jones said. “So if leaders in general, but specifically at JMU — I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again — if they don’t want students to assume their worst, they have to give us their best. Just because there isn’t the trust that I think we expect and we want and we need right now.”
College leaders cite the reduction in cases as one reason they’re comfortable bringing students back to campus, while many students see it as further evidence that college is safer for now online.
Read said the university’s health center now uses less than half of its 100-plus daily testing capacity and the school has beefed up isolation space. The day the university announced it would send students home, 64 of the 143 isolation beds had been filled.
Read said the university also has seen a big decrease in student self-reporting. Students were required to self-report if they needed an exemption from in-person classes. Read said they expect the number to increase again as classes start back up. She said testing was not required for those who left campus to come back.
Ana Jermstad, a senior health sciences major from Mount Jackson, said it’s only logical that case counts would go down when students left. She said that was the point of sending students home.
“Wouldn’t the same thing happen when you are bringing everybody back on campus?” Jermstad asked. “Wouldn’t those COVID rates continue to spike?”
Laura Lee Wight, population health community coordinator with the Central Shenandoah Health District, said the biggest uptick in cases in the district that includes Harrisonburg and JMU were in the 18- to 24-year-old age range. Wight said there was not a corresponding increase in hospitalizations or deaths.
The spike and fall in cases in Harrisonburg tracks closely with the arrival and departure of JMU students.
Wight said the health department saw a connection between student cases and community spread, citing students who live off campus. She also said an increase in cases in the district fell in line with other large gatherings in the area like weddings and funerals.
“While some of this can be attributed to outbreaks in institutions of higher education, it is important to also mention that we are seeing outbreaks outside of universities and colleges,” Wight said in an email.
The health district has worked with JMU to advise on reopening measures, and Wight said online classes help decrease risk, as well as stopping in-person classes. The measures put in place by the university can help stop transmission in the classroom, but Wight said transmission happens when people gather outside class, too.
“JMU has worked hard to implement measures that would decrease transmission of disease and has put measures into place that would help to rapidly identify cases of COVID-19 [increased testing and surveillance testing],” Wight said. “Bringing more people together always raises concern for transmission of respiratory diseases, but the measures that are being put into place should help to mitigate risk.”
Wight said the CSHD is working with other health districts to identify cases in JMU students in other areas of the state that could be traced back to Harrisonburg.
Melissa Gordon, public information officer with the VDH, said via email that there have been cases in JMU students that popped up after they were sent home in a time frame that suggests school exposure.
Tanna Walters worries about getting COVID-19 again from being back on campus. The senior engineering major found out she needed to be tested after her roommate got it. On the drive home from her test, she stopped to get lunch.
The first thing she did was sip her drink — no taste. Walters’ test results later confirmed she was positive, too.
Balancing classes and being sick was tough, Walters said. As the reopening approached, Walters was seeing if she could get all her classes moved online. In the end, all of her professors decided to keep the online format of her classes since it was what they had already adapted to, Walters said.
Read said the university has been open to working with students to adjust schedules if they were uncomfortable coming back to their in-person classes since the semester began and asked faculty to be accommodating of requests for online learning.
Sophomore Ryan Ritter worried when he saw how students behaved at the start of the semester. And despite the new rules that Ritter said will probably make campus safer, he’s worried about how hard it will be to police behavior off university property.
Off-campus parties were blamed for much of the rise in cases at JMU once students returned from summer break.
“Since that was the largest cause of the spread, I don’t see how ... the bulk of what they did is going to change anything,” he said.
Read said students had to sign an agreement before coming back to campus for the fall that said they would not go to gatherings that had 10 or more people. The university has been working with local law enforcement, campus police and student affairs staff to be on the lookout. Students could face consequences for partying — namely, immediate suspension.
Ritter packed only the essentials when he was sent home from JMU. He loaded his dad and stepmom’s white Ford F-150 with a crate and a carry-on filled with clothes and his laptop, along with whatever else he could squeeze in there, and they hit the road to make the 3½-hour drive back to Chesapeake. The rest of his belongings, the big stuff like bedding, stayed back at school.
Ritter spent only two weeks in his room at Grace Street Apartments before the university sent him and thousands of other students home; 55% of on-campus students, like Ritter, chose to leave. The other 2,700 received exemptions to stay.
For the trip back, Ritter said he to pack light. After all, he’s only going to be there for seven weeks before driving back home again for Thanksgiving.
But that’s only if JMU’s reopening goes as planned.