*This is a developing story and the website will be updated.

Rising fourth-year student Rohan Taneja is a computer science major with many of his courses being lectures or large sizes —two types of classes that will be held online, rather than in-person, this coming semester at the University of Virginia. 

On Wednesday, UVA made its formal announcement detailing what to expect for a somewhat reopened university beginning Aug. 25. While the institution plans to hold as many classes on Grounds as possible, it recognizes that some courses aren’t compatible with social distancing amidst COVID-19, as well as the fact that some students, staff and faculty may not wish or be able to physically return just yet. 

“I’ve talked with my parents about this, but I will definitely be going back to school. I think lots of my friends and lots of other UVA students are in the same mindset as we look towards doing our classes from our dorm rooms or apartment rooms,” Taneja said. 

As a student who rents an apartment off-campus, he understands the impact students have on the local renting market and businesses, especially the ones nearest to UVA. He also notes the need for safely handling the university’s reopening.

Protocol for the fall

Much of the formal announcement echoes what the university last month stated it was considering: 

  • Larger classes will be held online
  • Classes taught by faculty with health concerns will remain online 
  • 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

With a goal of allowing faculty, students and staff to return, there are some modifications to expect by August. Physical barriers will be placed around Grounds to ensure social distancing in classrooms and other common spaces. Dining will have limited seating capacity and an emphasis on to-go options.  Face coverings will be required to be worn. Those and other personal protective equipment will be provided to students, faculty and staff. Hand sanitizing stations will be installed across grounds. 

The release stated coordination with the Virginia Department of Health to support testing and to trace contacts of anyone who contracts the coronavirus. Additionally, students, faculty and staff will be required to track their symptoms daily using an app. 

Last month, Taneja had been part of a team developing a Bluetooth-based app called TraceX to help with contact tracing in advance of UVA’s anticipated reopening. Taneja’s team had hoped to release it on the Apple store, but the company adopted a policy where public health authorities update or create related apps.With the university moving forward to partially reopen Grounds, the announcement states that further details on what exactly will have an in-person option will be determined as “deans and faculty in every school are thinking creatively about how we can maximize the number of in-person classroom experiences.”

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.”

The status of student housing

On-Grounds housing will be available for all students, the university said.

However, because students are allowed to attend school remotely, the university has temporarily suspended its long-standing policy requiring incoming freshmen to live in on-Grounds housing. Instead, they will be allowed to stay “in their home communities for any reason if they desire.”

Any freshman not staying in their “home community” still will be required to live on Grounds, however. Those freshmen will continue to be housed in double rooms with roommates.

In a brief online Q&A, the university detailed the safety measures they plan on taking, such as requiring students to wear personal protective gear in shared spaces and enforcing social distancing.

In addition, each student will be assigned to a specific sink, stall and shower, and there will be a limit to the number of students allowed in communal bathrooms at any given time.

“Public areas in residence halls will undergo increased cleaning efforts and hand sanitizer stands will be readily available,” according to the university.

The university declined to give any further details about the safety measures they intend to take beyond what is posted in the Q&A on Wednesday evening, saying another announcement would be made by Housing and Residence Life later this week.

UVA’s impact on local business

The Ragged Mountain Running Shop on The Corner has set up tents outside for customers to either pick up or try out merchandise outside. As a health safety measure, only employees are allowed inside the store. Credit: Credit: Billy Jean Louis / Charlottesville Tomorrow Credit: Credit: Billy Jean Louis / Charlottesville Tomorrow

The reopening of UVA will certainly bump sales for many businesses — restaurants and hotels. But as much as business owners are eager for students to come back, they’ve also voiced health concerns about the spread of the virus as students gather in groups.  

“We had almost a 50% loss in hotel occupancy in Charlottesville in the last three months, and that represents literally hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Travel and Lodging Association.

For hotels around Charlottesville, a large fraction of their business depends on the activity of the UVA. Bob Goss, owner of the Inn at Monticello, estimates that as many as 90% of their guests come to visit the university. He said the spring and fall are especially busy, with a significant amount of business from UVA events. The Inn was fully booked for the weekend of UVA’s graduation in mid-May and for the weekend of UVA’s reunion in June, before both these events were postponed.

Goss said that when UVA announced that a graduation ceremony for the class of 2020 tentatively will be held in October, the Inn at Monticello was quickly fully booked for that weekend this coming fall.

However, if the pandemic is still prevalent at that time, the ceremony will be postponed again to May, which would mean hotels throughout Charlottesville would have to weather a much longer period before that chance to recoup some of their lost business.

Goss also said that in the fall, they’re usually completely booked on weekends when there’s a home football game. The university plans to hold sporting events on Grounds this fall but has yet to make final decisions about fan attendance, according to an email announcement sent by the university president and vice presidents.

For Johnny Garver, owner and chef at Pronto on the Corner, the bustling student activity accounts for nearly 90% of sales at the restaurant. 

“If they had canceled school and students weren’t coming back this August, we don’t know if our business would’ve survived,” Garver said. “We just opened in January, and we were doing great up until the COVID thing.” 

Having worked in Charlottesville for more than two decades, Garver said the Corner is a little different than most places in town. That’s because, he said, regular Charlottesville residents don’t normally venture there due to the limited restaurant and parking options.

But then Garver acknowledged that the students back on Grounds also comes with a price, stressing students make up the majority of the demographics who are neglecting state recommendations to wear  masks. And as he closes the restaurant for the night, he witnesses students having house parties, drinking in groups and not wearing masks. 

Safety health measures at Pronto include separating tables 6 feet apart, handing out free masks to those who might not have one and requiring staff wearing gloves. To cope with the pandemic outbreak, the restaurant has shifted its business model by moving toward online ordering and advance ordering to minimize time for customers.

“It’s important that UVA students realize that not wearing a mask, they can still spread it to other people,” said Garver, adding that in addition to students venturing the Corner, other patrons include patients from the hospital. And they should be mindful of that, he said.

Co-owner of Ragged Mountain Running Shop Audrey Lorenzoni said UVA bringing the students back on Grounds makes her nervous because she has witnessed students not wearing masks. And as they are in groups in the fall, she worries how quickly the virus would spread. 

“It’s too early to make these definite calls to reopen,” she said.  

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Charlotte Rene Woods

I was Charlottesville Tomorrow’s government reporter from 2019 to 2022. Thanks for letting me be your resident nerd on how local and state governments serve us. Keep up with me @charlottewords on Twitter. If you haven’t yet, consider subscribing to Charlottesville Tomorrow’s FREE newsletter to get updates from the newsroom on the things you want to know.

Billy Jean Louis

Billy Jean Louis joined Charlottesville Tomorrow as its education reporter in April 2019 and is a graduate of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jean Louis speaks English, Haitian Creole and French.

Jessie Higgins

I'm Charlottesville Tomorrow's managing editor and health and safety reporter. If there’s something you think we should be investigating, please email me at jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org! And you can follow all the work we do by subscribing to our free newsletter! Hablo español, y quiero mantener a la comunidad hispanohablante informada. Si tienes preguntas o información que debo saber, por favor, envíame un correo electrónico a jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org.