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Donna P. Henry column: Va.’s colleges and universities are working to reopen this fall
COVID-19 and higher education

Donna P. Henry column: Va.’s colleges and universities are working to reopen this fall

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Virginia’s colleges and universities have long served the commonwealth as a source for innovation and growth. Higher education institutions contribute an estimated $39 billion in GDP annually to Virginia’s economy, and our talent pool is among the strongest in the nation — a reflection of the countless students we launch to successful careers and lives.

Our transformational role has never been more important than now. I and the other presidents of Virginia’s public universities and colleges are committed to working together to address the global pandemic and the economic crisis upon us.

The health and safety of our communities is a priority, and we acted swiftly to protect them. In response to the outbreak, we sent the majority of our 400,000 students home right away, thereby limiting the spread of the virus and helping to flatten the curve. At the same time, we understood that some students faced greater risks returning home and set up appropriate emergency housing, following proper social distancing guidelines.

When the pandemic started, we never wavered from our mission. Within two weeks, our universities and colleges transformed our spring curriculums, moving physical classrooms to virtual learning platforms. Together, we stood up nearly 30,000 classes online, and while we all reported a few bumps along the way, the process overall has been surprisingly smooth.

Throughout the crises, we have continued to provide instruction and keep our students on track to graduate. This progress is both essential for students and critical for the rest of the state. We are producing doctors, nurses, health care managers, software developers, cybersecurity engineers, instructional designers, supply chain experts and other professionals who keep us safe and grow our economy.

As top employers in our regions, we also kept our people working, even as other industries shed jobs. We are a knowledge industry, so we could move the majority of our employees — a collective of nearly 60,000 faculty and staff — to telework.

Yet even as we shuttered our buildings, we never fully closed our doors. We kept residence halls open to students in need. Our staffs served meals, cleaned and disinfected buildings, and provided public safety. Many universities opened their residence halls to health care workers who needed to practice social distancing to keep their families safe.

Our impact goes beyond the classroom. We provided much-needed medical supplies and protective equipment to local hospitals and health care workers, and our health systems deployed research talent and resources to develop and share COVID-19 testing capabilities. When Gov. Ralph Northam needed guidance on how long before the state could resume normal operations, he pointed to infectious disease modeling conducted at the University of Virginia.

When the state needed to clear space in existing hospitals for the influx of coronavirus patients, Virginia Commonwealth University converted its residence halls into hospitals for those needing medical attention beyond COVID-19. Our faculty and staff answered the governor’s call to recruit 30,000 medical and nonmedical volunteers for the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) to fight the pandemic.

At Virginia’s research institutions, faculty are working on the most important aspects of this health crisis. Scientists across Virginia universities are helping develop antibody tests, running complex simulations of digital patient models to accelerate vaccines, helping find treatments and advancing knowledge of the disease’s spread.

Colleges and universities make a difference in the lives of Virginians. But we also are facing enormous challenges. The disruption to our normal operations has resulted in significant expenses and substantial lost revenue — potentially totaling as much as $630 million collectively through the summer months.

That cost will pale in comparison to what we stand to lose if we cannot resume face-to-face instruction soon. The value of a college education is as much about the experience as it is about the education. Students learn through engagement, discussion and discourse, and from exposure to new ideas and different ways of thinking. As proud as we are of our pivot to virtual learning, we know the campus experience — and the human skills our students cultivate together — is vital to the success of many of our traditional-aged students.

We hope to resume face-to-face instruction in the fall, if public health circumstances allow it, and all are working on plans that can help keep students, faculty and staff safe. We know some students might not be ready to return for reasons related to the pandemic. Adaptation and flexibility will continue to be required of us.

We are united as presidents and optimistic for the future. We stand ready to partner with our elected leaders and all Virginians to chart a path out of these crises and back on the road to prosperity. We ask for your partnership toward those crucial goals.

Donna P. Henry is chair of the Council of Presidents in Virginia, which represents every public university and college in the state, and the chancellor of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Contact her at:

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