As University of Virginia students prepare to return to campus next week on Feb. 1, lessons learned from the fall semester leave some local leaders at greater ease now than in August. 

Charlottesville City Councilor Michael Payne described himself as feeling “a little more confident” now than he was ahead of the fall semester. That confidence is bolstered by no evidence indicating transmission of COVID-19 from the student body into the Charlottesville community throughout the fall semester. 

This spring, though, he worries that a false sense of security among students might engender sloppy adherence to public health guidelines. 

“It’s also going to be important that students don’t have a sense of ‘COVID fatigue’ and think, with the vaccine rollout just beginning, … ‘Let’s return to normal and go out and have house parties and go to bars’ because, again, the risk of community spread is very real,” Payne said. 

Since students left Charlottesville in November, cases of COVID-19 – driven heavily by holiday gatherings – have surged to record highs both locally and nationally. This increased prevalence, coupled with reports of new and more contagious variants of COVID-19, prompted the university to adopt more stringent public health regulations for the upcoming semester. 

The rules include a gathering limit of no more than six — a cap that will remain in place until at least Feb. 14. Students will also be required to test negative for COVID-19 prior to their on-campus arrival and are encouraged to quarantine for 14 days before returning to campus. Unlike last semester — in which on-campus residents were tested for COVID-19 weekly and off-campus residents were tested randomly — weekly testing is mandated for those living on Grounds and in off-Grounds housing in the area.

In efforts to encourage a renewed commitment to the school’s COVID rules, UVA President Jim Ryan rolled up his sleeves to lay out the university’s plan for the upcoming semester in a Wednesday video message. The main theme of his message: that amid an exponential rise in COVID-19 cases regionally and nationwide, compliance with the university’s public health regulations is critical. 

Like the fall semester, the threat of suspension looms over egregious transgressions of the rules. University leaders wrote in a Jan. 18 email to the UVA community that, given the virus’ prevalence, the university’s “margin for error is narrower than it was in the fall.”

Otherwise, the spring semester largely mirrors the fall, a semester that university leaders considered to be a success, citing no evidence of community spread from UVA students into the surrounding community. Although the university weathered spikes in cases of COVID-19 throughout the fall, the Blue Ridge Health District’s contact tracing investigations uncovered no links between unaffiliated community members and the UVA population. 

Councilor Heather Hill commended UVA’s intention to keep both the student population and Charlottesville community “as safe as possible.” She pointed out as successes the university’s testing procedures and willingness to adapt to the changing public health situation throughout the fall. 

“So much more has been learned and procedures have been certainly fleshed out, and I have great confidence in this return,” Hill said. “I have confidence — a different level of confidence than even maybe we had six months ago when we certainly had great concerns about what that’s going to mean for the community at large to have an influx of students.”

Ryan McKay, BRHD’s director of policy and planning, and incident commander for COVID-19 operations, said risk mitigation strategies developed throughout the fall semester — like encouraging students to quarantine and test negative for COVID-19 prior to their on-Grounds return — can continue minimize opportunities for community spread even in the face of rising COVID cases.

“Students coming back in August, as a community, our transmission was much lower — we were in much better shape than we are now,” McKay said. “But I also think having had a semester of work with the UVA to identify what’s really working in terms of risk mitigation, minimizing spread can be applied more thoroughly as students return.”

The health district met with UVA leaders several times per week throughout the fall semester to exchange information on cases and outbreaks. According to the university’s COVID tracker, there are currently 116 active cases of COVID-19 in the university community — a demographic that includes students and faculty, staff and contracted employees. 

As students prepare to return to Charlottesville next week, Hill’s concerns center around mutations of COVID-19 that reportedly spread more efficiently.

“The main question mark is, and I think what’s weighing in all of us, is these other variants of the virus and the impact they might have in terms of spreading,” Hill said. 

Preventing the spread of those more contagious variants involves strict adherence to established mitigation measures — like masking, physical distancing and avoiding gatherings — McKay said. Payne hopes that enforcement of these known mitigation strategies, coupled with regular testing and quarantine and isolation measures, will again stop students from spreading COVID-19 into the surrounding community.

“There’s no way around it — [students returning] introduces risk, and it’s going to introduce a spike in cases and the risk of community spread and there’s no way around that risk,” Payne said. “But I think if UVA continues to follow the protocols that they set forth in the fall and follow through on their plans for the spring semester, and is very aggressive and enforcing it, I’m hopeful that it can be successful like it was in the fall semester.”