As universities across the country opened for the fall semester, University of Virginia administrators took notes.

The week before making a final decision on whether to proceed with in-person learning on Sept. 8, administrators appeared full-steam-ahead on the effort to conduct some sort of in-person learning for students during the fall, according to emails produced in a public information request. Charlottesville Tomorrow requested records in September and received them Oct. 22, after paying $370.

They worked to finalize testing plans for faculty, staff and students — and manage expectations about how many tests might be available at any given time. When replying to media requests about whether UVA’s decision to order more Let’s Get Checked Tests was due to its lab’s ability to process only 750 tests per day in August — the contracted tests are processed at the company’s private lab — staff members worked to turn the focus toward the school’s plans to have enough tests for the coming school year.

“The purchase you identify was made out of an abundance of caution in order to ensure that the university has an adequate reserve supply of tests as we enter the academic year,” university spokesman Brian Coy responded, after receiving input about phrasing from other senior staff members.

Staff members also worked to craft internal messages to staff about the availability of testing, noting that UVA’s medical labs aimed to serve health care staff but also had to provide clinical and statewide support.

“In the case of testing supply shortages or a major increase in the need for medical and public health COVID testing, the testing program for UVA Health members may need to be temporarily suspended while dealing with such emergency situations,” Dr. Christopher Moskaluk, chair of UVA’s pathology department, wrote in suggested language for senior staff to include in communications.

A listserv of 25 administrators at elite schools in the country, including Harvard, Northwestern and New York universities, discussed how to approach the fall semester. Vanderbilt University’s vice chancellor for finance and chief financial officer, Brett Sweet, forwarded an email sent to Stanford University students, as well as a dashboard documenting various schools’ COVID-19 testing strategies and case counts.

The “August testing survey” spreadsheet is partially redacted, but it appears to list 29 schools — Ivy League schools as well as elite state schools known as Public Ivies, including UVA — with known testing strategies as of Aug. 11. 

The dashboard lists a COVID-19 test provider, if known, whether the school is requiring pre-arrival testing, and whether it is specifically testing student athletes. It also appears to list the number of students tested and the number of positive tests reported, but because UVA FOIA officers appear to have copy-pasted spreadsheet cells across several pages, it is hard to tell if that information would have been publicly available or was only shared among administrators. The specific numbers and names of related institutions are redacted.

Jennifer Mackrous, UVA’s public information officer, said the information had been redacted based on a confidentiality agreement with other institutions and cited Virginia law’s “specific provision of law” exemption. Mackrous said that the agreement to share COVID-19 information was oral and there is no written contract to provide. 

Discussions with other institutions appeared to influence UVA’s decision about what information to display on its testing dashboard. 

“Notre Dame’s experience suggests that we should *not* do daily case counts on the dashboard,” Liz Magill wrote to other executive staff on Aug. 20, after getting off a call with other provosts with collegiate sports in the Atlantic Coast Conference. “Their positivity rate — because of the small N in a single day — went from less than one percent one day to 55% the next day. They regret that they did that [daily case counts]. I will pass this on to the contingency planning group.”

UVA debuted a COVID-19 tracker in August, but it did not initially include daily case counts, focusing instead on a daily average of new cases. In mid-September, it began reporting new positive tests as well as the number of tests conducted by UVA staff.

“UVA did not include a daily positivity rate in the first version of its COVID tracker because our testing capacity had not yet grown to such a point where that metric would convey a useful understanding of the prevalence of the virus within our community,” Coy said. “At the beginning of the semester, our testing efforts were focused heavily on people who were symptomatic or close contacts of infected individuals. As our capacity has grown, we’ve been able to do more asymptomatic testing and better determine how pervasive the virus is within our population.”

Coy also added that UVA officials are currently working on another version of the tracker that might add more metrics. 

Administrators also shared anecdotal stories of athletes saying they felt like commodities for being asked to play after other students had been sent home and of “losing” faculty who were otherwise willing to teach in person after moving online. 

In a message to student athletes, Director of Athletics Carla Williams said she thought students who had been on Grounds since July were “doing a very good job and I expect all of you [returning students] to do the same. While we have not been perfect, thus far the positivity rate has been very good.”

Administrators also discussed potential plans for a pivot if, on Aug. 28, UVA decided to stay online.

“President Ryan and University leadership monitored metrics around the virus right up to the point of our announcement on Aug. 28 in case there was a need to shift course again,” Coy told Charlottesville Tomorrow. “That’s a practice the University has continued and it’s led to decisions like limiting the size of groups to 5 (now 10) and requiring additional wearing of masks in order to slow the spread of the virus within our community.”

On Aug. 20, administrators sent instructors tips for tailoring their syllabi to meet an unusual semester, with caveats for in-person and online learning. The instructions did not include descriptions of whether or how a professor might be told of a student testing positive for COVID-19; rather, if a professor did find out of a positive test in their class, they were warned only to tell their departmental dean and the Office of the Dean of Students, for fear of violating privacy laws under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

The guidance has become common practice for universities handling notifications of potential transmission. While experts say there may be good reason to protect individual privacy in an effort to encourage honest reporting and contact tracing, they say HIPAA doesn’t have much to do with a professor discussing anonymized information, according to reporting from Inside Higher Ed.

That same day, administrators also sent emails planning for “skeletal staff” at several offices starting on Sept. 8, the day some students were expected to begin on-Grounds classes.

In all, conducting eight weeks of school without a reversal or scandal, despite some pushback on transparency, testing and communication from some student and community groups, may be a victory for UVA, and it appears to be using the same plan as a model for spring 2021 learning. On Oct. 22, the university said it would again allow some students to choose on-Grounds and in-person learning, while still offering the majority of classes online.

“I have friends who disagree with me vehemently on this, but things could be a lot worse,” said John Edwin Mason, an associate professor of history. “What most people were so afraid of was that there was going to be a huge movement of COVID off campus and into the community, and that seems to not have happened.”

Still, Mason said, it hasn’t been easy. It’s been tough to keep students involved. They have shared feelings of being more stressed, anxious and lonely than usual. And he’s now trying to prepare them for a spring semester that, in all likelihood, will hand most of them periods of loneliness, stress and isolation.

“You can’t set yourself up to think that things will be better, because they won’t be better,” he said. “I just don’t want them to have unreasonable expectations that all of a sudden, it won’t be like this in February.”


Ruth Serven Smith, originally from Oklahoma and a proud Midwesterner, is currently based in Birmingham, Alabama. Her journalism work includes a three-year stint as a reporter and editor for the Daily Progress and work in Columbia, Missouri; Kansas City; and Indianapolis.