In the days following a message about returning to Grounds under the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequences for breaking the rules, University of Virginia students are finding themselves under the impression that the responsibility for any potential outbreaks will be shifted to them.

With the start of in-person classes delayed by two weeks, UVA was uncharacteristically empty the day online courses began Tuesday. The drone of cicadas overwhelmed the conversations of the few dozen – mostly masked – students seated in small groups on the Lawn. 

 Among those students was fourth-year student Dre Dilao, who was perched on a rocking chair outside her Lawn room. An ardent advocate for a completely virtual semester, Dilao felt messaging from the university had been vague until Dean of Students Allen Groves’ Saturday video to the student body.

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Groves left no room for ambiguity in the message: All students must wear masks outside of their residences, stay 6 feet away from others at all times and may only gather in groups of no larger than 15 individuals. 

He also made clear that any willful transgression of the three rules — such as attending or throwing a party — would result in an immediate and irrevocable suspension for the remainder of the semester. 

The guidelines detailed in his address echo throughout Grounds, as posters plastered throughout remind students to mask up and maintain physical distance.

“For me, it feels like the first time [UVA] took a stance,” Dilao said. 

As an on-Grounds resident, Dilao fears being booted from housing in the event of a schoolwide outbreak — a reality faced by students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and the University of Notre Dame after just one week of in-person classes. As of Thursday, 31 UVA students have tested positive for the virus. 

Even more important, Dilao said, is protecting the Charlottesville community from the virus — a point wholly absent from Groves’ eight-minute address. 

 “It’s pretty clear that some students care and will take the precautions necessary, but others just want to live out college life without any concerns for the community at large,” she said. 

Like Dilao, fourth-year student and Student Council President Ellen Yates is glad to hear strict guidelines from administrators. Yates agrees that students bear significant responsibility in preventing community spread of COVID-19; still, she said, it is the university’s choice to bring thousands of undergraduates back to Charlottesville.

“Something that is often undiscussed on the university’s end is that the university is ultimately making these decisions about returning,” Yates said. 

The university will not say how many of its 20,000 students have returned until September, but it is requiring students to sign a contract prior to coming to Grounds saying they will adhere to public health measures.

That students will sidestep public health guidelines in favor of partying is a “reality” to which the university is not naïve, Yates said. 

Already, students packed into off-campus yards last month for “Midsummers” — an annual party weekend capping off the first session of summer courses. The weekend’s largely mask-free activities prompted a similarly firm email from Groves. 

“If such behavior continues, we will not make it long into the fall semester before a significant outbreak occurs and we then need to send students home,” Groves wrote in the July 14 email. 

Saturday’s message came just in time for what on any other year would be the evening of “Block Party” — the unsanctioned beer-soaked bash along Wertland Street that unofficially kicks off the fall semester and endlessly exasperates university administration. 

“You may have seen in the last 48 hours that several peer institutions have not hesitated to immediately suspend students who decided to place others at risk by gathering in large numbers,” Groves said, referring to schools like Virginia Tech and Purdue University, which suspended seven and 36 students, respectively, for off-campus gatherings last week. 

“I need you to understand that we will do the same,” he added.

On Wednesday, Yates and the rest of the Student Council joined groups like the Young Democratic Socialists at UVA and the Charlottesville Human Rights Commission in calling on administrators for an entirely-online semester. 

YDS at UVA spearheaded over the summer the campaign for a virtual semester, outlining 11 demands to protect students and workers via a petition that has earned more than 1,000 signatures. In the face of nationwide college shutdowns prompted by COVID-19 outbreaks, third-year student and YDS member Jacob Wartel characterized Groves’ message to students as “disconnected from reality.”

“The kind of hubris to think ‘Oh UNC had it bad, but UVA is different’ — I think it’s a failure of leadership,” Wartel said. 

UVA plans to collect reports of public health violations through Just Report It as well as through a separate reporting portal designed for members of the Charlottesville community. This strategy, Wartel said, is a “microcosm” of the federal government’s, in which community members are asked to police one another. And the goal is to shift the responsibility for potential outbreaks onto students. 

Lounging on towels several feet from one another near the Rotunda, fourth-year students Maya Ramani and Cathy Nguyen agreed. 

“They were really ready to put the blame on the students if anything went wrong,” Ramani said.