The University of Virginia on Thursday gave a preliminary update on its plans for Grounds for the fall semester and the potential format of instruction. President Jim Ryan in a letter indicated that the semester would hold to an Aug. 25 start date with modifications. 

“Assuming state and federal public health guidelines allow, we are planning to have students back on Grounds and to hold in-person classes this fall,” the letter reads. “We are still trying to determine how many students we can have safely back on Grounds and living in dorms, and how many in-person classes we can host, given social distancing restrictions.”

Other signatures on the letter include Provost Liz Magill, Executive Vice President for Health Affairs Craig Kent, as well as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer J.J. Davis. 

Main takeaways on the reopening

  • Larger classes will remain online for the fall semester
  • Classes taught by faculty with health concerns will remain online 
  • Most in-person classes also will be available remotely for students who cannot return to Grounds
  • Most students have the option to remain home and participate in classes remotely
  • Most students will have the option to defer or take a gap year

The fall semester also is anticipated to be shorter in duration concluding before Thanksgiving. The longer time between semesters can minimize some travel risk to and from Charlottesville for students, university officials said. The university still is determining whether exams will be hosted before Thanksgiving or taken remotely. 

In order to help ensure that students can receive a full year’s worth of credits regardless of when the fall semester starts and ends, the university is looking into expanding what is offered in its January term.

“This will allow students a chance to take a lighter load of classes in the fall, whether in person or online,” the letter explains. “We are also considering additional ways to allow students to stretch their classes across a longer period of time than the traditional academic calendar.”

In the meantime, the university is working on obtaining personal protective equipment as well as developing protocols for testing, tracing and isolating anyone who tests positive for COVID-19. The university also is working to identify places on Grounds to quarantine students, if needed. 

“This fall will not be a normal fall, even with some students back on Grounds and some classes being held in person,” Ryan wrote. “There inevitably will be greater risk in having students return, and we will be placing a good deal of trust in our students to look out for the safety and well-being not just of each other but of our faculty, staff, and community members.” 

In the letter, Ryan also noted the challenges of remote learning for some students considering different living arrangements, family circumstances and family obligations. 

“There is also no end in reasonable sight for this virus, which makes it even more imperative that we do our best to adapt,” he said. 

Details on UVA’s final decisions for the fall are slated for mid-June.

“As today’s communication states, that work is ongoing and we expect to provide additional details and answers to important questions in the coming weeks,” Wes Hester, a spokesperson for the university, said Thursday. “In the meantime, President Ryan and university leadership believe it is their responsibility to keep students, parents, faculty and staff as informed as possible about what the university is considering and when members of this community can expect to learn more.” 

Dr. Leigh-Ann Webb is an assistant professor of emergency medicine who teaches a class called Foundations of Clinical Medicine that, due to its structure and lesson type, is challenging to hold without being in-person.

“Among other things, first and second year medical students learn the nuances of relationship building, history taking, physical examination, and clinical reasoning skills,” Dr. Webb explained. “The format for the class is a dynamic one that’s difficult to reproduce virtually. We’re doing the best we can online but look forward to being  back in the classroom when we can safely do so.”

Jeannie Sellick, a rising sixth-year doctoral student in the Department of Religious Studies, has several concerns. Sellick, whose previous roles include teaching assistant, will be teaching a class in the last session of summer. The university has not communicated whether the class will be online, she said. 

For the first two summer sessions, she said, the university told her these classes will be online. But because Sellick’s course doesn’t start until July, the school has yet to provide more details. 

Until Sellick knows exactly what the university plans to do to protect people like her, she said she doesn’t feel comfortable going back on Grounds in the fall. 

“Everyone wants to be back in person because we love teaching. We love seeing the students. It’s hard to say I would feel comfortable without knowing the factors of ‘OK. Are students going to be living in dorms? Are they going to be tested? Are we all going to be wearing a face mask?’” 

Sellick said she understands that this is a time where people are still trying to figure out the logistics. But what concerns her from the email is the idea that there are going to be classes that take place both in person and remotely.

“There’s no notion in the email or anyone from UVA about how faculty, in particular graduate students, will be compensated for the additional labor of creating two versions of the same class,” she said.

People teaching online courses can’t simply record the lectures, she said, adding instructors need time to tailor them. In terms of safety, the university said larger classes will be online, but it did not specify what would be considered a large class.

“Any of the solutions that they pose at UVA on how classes are going to run in the fall, a lot of that labor is going to fall on graduate students and adjunct professors,” she said. “One thing that the grad students at UVA have been asking for is the administration to give us an extension on all [doctoral] and [masters degree] academic deadlines.” 

What does this mean for business?

Since Gov. Ralph Northam in March ordered schools to close to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Oakhurst Inn General Manager Bill Chapman said occupancy went down by 90% to 95%. And there were many nights in April when he didn’t sell a single room.

“It’s not that bad anymore, but we were there for a few weeks,” Chapman said, stressing that moving forward, occupancy will be lower for at least the next six months. 

Prior to the pandemic, the slow periods were normally in the middle of winter and in the summer. Spring and fall semester are the big times in town.

Chapman said he’s cautiously optimistic that the reopening of UVA in the fall will be somewhat of normalcy. On Thursday afternoon, he said he talked to a parent on the phone inquiring  about move-in weekend, which is a little bit of normalcy because that’s the type of conversations he usually has at this time of year.

“We don’t think it will be as robust as last year because of precautions, but it’s a good thing to have the university reopen,” he said.

The reopening of UVA won’t only benefit hoteliers like Chapman. 

Dev Bradford, a store associate at the Impeccable Pig, a women’s clothing store on the Downtown Mall, said she’s excited about UVA’s decision to reopen Grounds because the store generates the majority of sales from students.

“That would actually just promote our sales a little bit more, and we definitely need that during this whole COVID-19 issue. So, I’m hoping the students come back, and they’re excited, and they’re ready to shop. And maybe it might make them feel better.”

Spring and summer are peak seasons for the Impeccable Pig because of the great number of tourists in the area, she explained. Fall typically is not as high but better than the way it is right now, she said. 

Bradford said she was a little concerned that UVA was not going to open at all in the fall. 

“I was a bit worried about that, but knowing that we have a couple of other stores in different regions, I was thinking that the worst that could happen was that maybe this one would be closed for a longer that than the others would be but I have high hopes of actually having the store still be open and not permanently shut down.” 

She stressed that this spring was not the greatest season the store has had.

“It was really bad. It got slow. We were slow on supplies, and then the only thing that we could do was just close the store,” said Bradford, adding that the store was closed for about two months before reopening in May. “It’s been a while.” 

Like many businesses in town, the Impeccable Pig cut back its staff, but it aims to bring its staff back as business gets better. 

“Once it gets busy, we need more people for sure because it’s crazy in here,” she said. 

Speaking on whether the store would be able to handle a high number of customers in the fall, Bradford said she hopes so because the goal is to revamp the store a little. 

“Depending on how the company feels about that, we won’t really know yet for sure,” she said, adding the plan would be to change the order of items at the store to have more space “so people can actually come in and move around.”