Fall semester ended early, spring semester started late, and when University of Virginia students reunited after the unusually long winter break, the COVID numbers made up for lost time.
It took a few weeks. As students returned to Grounds in January, the number of new cases per day, a key benchmark, tracked where it had left off the previous semester, averaging in the teens or less. When classes began Feb. 1, UVA had a baseline of eight new cases per day. Then, after the first week, eight became 60. Eight days later, the average multiplied to 230.
UVA’s weekly testing once classes began might have contributed to the higher count, but even then, and more worrisome, the daily rate of positive COVID tests was spiking too—surpassing 6 percent in mid-February. It was typically less than 1 percent in the fall.
Driving the numbers was human behavior, and that brought the worsening situation under the jurisdiction of the University Judiciary Committee, charged with administering UVA’s Standards of Conduct, which was expanded to include COVID protocols to protect public health.
The student-run committee was already overburdened from the previous semester. It had adjudicated 23 cases in the fall, more than double the number heard during all of the previous academic year, thanks to COVID. And with the extended winter break, cases from the previous semester had been held over to spring, just as the new surge took off. Gabriella Cox (Batten ’21), who was UJC chair through April, says, “It’s been particularly taxing for everyone.”
The spring COVID outbreak prompted plenty of finger-pointing, particularly at fraternities and sororities. On Feb. 14, rush culminated in bid day, the celebratory event when prospects accept membership offers. Not all the activities were virtual. By early April, Greek organizations accounted for seven of the eight adjudicated UJC cases that involved student groups. But University officials have stressed that the cause of February’s surge can’t be blamed on one segment of the University community. It’s more complicated than that.
“Throughout COVID, we’ve been trained to think about superspreader events,” says Allen Groves (Law ’90), associate vice president and dean of students. “But small gatherings also can cause spread as people go back to friend groups.”
Where the buck stops
UVA wasn’t the only university to see a mid-February surge. Some required students to stay home or moved all classes online. University of Michigan officials said social gatherings caused their spiking numbers.
At UVA, the numbers on Feb. 16 prompted administrators to shut down activity on Grounds. In-person gatherings, which were already limited, were banned. Libraries and gyms were closed. No more than two people could eat together in the dining halls.
“We had to move, and we had to move quickly,” UVA President James E. Ryan (Law ‘92) said during a virtual town hall three days later. “It was Mardi Gras, and the next day was a day off from classes, and we thought students would be getting together that night. This was not a decision to be made lightly.”
Many, maybe most, students had been doing all they could to be safe, but there was evidence of prohibited social gatherings. The Corner was busy on weekends. And the Cavalier Daily ran photos from fraternity and sorority houses showing students gathering without masks or much distance between them.
Greek organizations became a target. On Feb. 23, Student Council denounced what it saw as UVA’s tolerance of the Inter-Fraternity Council’s and Inter-Sorority Council’s weak enforcement of COVID protocols during the Greek system’s recruitment season.
“I am disappointed that administrators allowed IFC and ISC rush to happen in person in the first place,” says Abel Liu (Col ’22), the current Student Council president. “When students choose to disregard the guidelines that UVA puts forward, they are not only endangering the UVA community, but the Charlottesville community and, at the end of the day, we are guests in their city. That’s what disappoints me most.”
Bid day bads
For their part, IFC and ISC leaders say they had laid out strict recruitment guidelines. IFC President Andrew Huffman (Col ’22) insists IFC leadership had made it clear that no event could have more than six people, masks were required except when eating, and social distancing should be followed, he says via email.
Fraternities had complied with restrictions in the fall, prompting leaders to allow in-person events during spring rush. But a Feb. 26 IFC statement announced the suspension of all organized in-person gatherings because of “irresponsible” behavior at houses.
There have been multiple incidents of blatant noncompliance and disrespect for the less restrictive rules,” the statement said. The IFC didn’t disclose specifics.
The sorority recruitment was completely virtual, ISC President Clare Scully (Com ’22), says via email. She notes chapters were told they had to comply with University, state and local guidelines on bid day.
“On bid day, parts of our community failed to comply completely with University guidelines, exhibiting instances of groups larger than six or pods not fully masked,” she says. “Such missteps we must take accountability for.”
But she cautions against directly correlating those infractions to UVA’s COVID resurgence. Sorority bid day took place just one day before UVA’s major spike on Feb. 15 and 16. “I think it is unlikely that the ISC was a driving factor in the surge as our recruitment for the prior two weeks was 100 percent virtual,” she says, “but I cannot say for certain.”
During the town hall, Ryan acknowledged that administrators could have tried harder to discourage in-person rush events. “It may seem obvious at this point that there would be violations,” he said. “And we might seem somewhere between clueless and naïve to have thought otherwise. I get that. But this was another situation where we were trying, sincerely, to find the right balance between freedom and trust on the one hand and complete control on the other.”
And, he said, Greek life wasn’t only to blame.
Other clusters in the surge
A map of COVID cases, presented during the town hall, showed clusters around Rugby Road, the fraternity neighborhood, but also amid the first-year dorms and off 14th Street near The Corner. About 75 percent of UVA’s COVID cases were off Grounds. “In our investigations, we have seen an increase in student cases related to small and large social gatherings,” says Jason Elliott (Col ’13), a communications specialist for the Blue Ridge Health District, part of the Virginia Department of Health, which conducted contact tracing, who spoke via email.
Students cooperated with contact tracers, he says. Between February and early April, department workers were able to speak with 91 percent of the students they attempted to interview. Contact tracing also showed students spread COVID mostly to each other, not the community.
Dr. Mitch Rosner (Res ’00, Fellow ’02), chairman of UVA’s Department of Medicine, says the surge had numerous causes. As students returned in January, COVID cases were higher across the country. With the cold winter weather, students were staying inside where COVID can more easily spread. They also were suffering from COVID fatigue. “When anybody lets up their guard with COVID-19, it will spread and grow very quickly,” he says.
Meanwhile, the influx of COVID-positive students and others under observation added to the work of UVA’s COVID management machine. Students who had tested positive were sent to isolation in empty dorms. Those in quarantine, who had been in contact with a COVID-positive student, went to Charlottesville hotels that had contracted with UVA to serve students.
Starting in the spring, students who lived off Grounds could take advantage of the isolation and quarantine quarters, but most stayed put.
At the height of the surge, care teams worked overtime to ensure that students were settled in to isolation or quarantine housing or were taken care of in off-Grounds housing, according to Nicole Eramo (Col ’97, Educ ’03, ’10), assistant vice president in the Student Affairs Office. Dining services prepared thousands of meals, 24,690 from January to March, 10 percent more than during the entire fall semester, for delivery to students in isolation and quarantine, according to Sarah Gordon with outside vendor Aramark.
First-year Jessica Moore (Col ’24) landed in quarantine on Feb. 10 after eating in the dining hall with another student who tested positive. Her only daily escape from her hotel room was a 2-mile run around the hotel’s parking lot. As soon as she was released, 10 days later and with a negative COVID test, she went home to hug her family and choose her own food. “It definitely was lonely,” she says.
Before the spring surge, Groves, the dean of students office, and UJC leaders met to hash out what might happen if the group became overwhelmed with cases. They agreed on what cases the dean’s office would handle with warnings and what would be sent to the UJC, Groves says.
But not only did the number of cases rise; so did the complexity. The student committee was hearing a high number of multiparty cases where students at the same gathering faced the same sanctions. Because students had the right to defend themselves individually, the cases took time. One involved more than 20 students and took multiple days, says former UJC Chair Cox.
And they raised tough questions. “In the past, socializing has never been a crime,” says Lauren Kim (Col ’22), Cox’s successor. COVID now has the UJC delving into students’ personal lives. “It’s so strange for us to look at it,” she says. “How do we fairly adjudicate this and figure out a structure for you to still have a social life but do so safely?”
Through mid-March, the UJC had adjudicated 44 total cases for the academic year with 24 others in the pipeline. The details remain confidential, but sanctions mostly involved students’ writing essays, taking part in an educational program or completing community service. A handful were suspended or expelled “in abeyance”—the sanction triggered if the student commits another offense.
The runup in disciplinary cases isn’t unprecedented. In the 2017-2018 academic year, UJC heard 68 cases. Cox says, “Some years, you see more reports than others.”
“It’s been a rough year,” current UJC Chair Kim adds. “But I think this is an example of how student self-governance can absorb conflict.”
Students across UVA also stepped up. After the mid-February surge and the new restrictions, the daily numbers fell back to earth. By Feb. 28, UVA had just one new daily case. Through most of March and early April, even as some restrictions lifted, daily cases were typically in the single digits.
Now, as vaccines continue to roll out, there’s hope for a better summer and fall. “I’m proud of the students, faculty and staff. I think everyone has really acted like a community,” the Department of Medicine’s Rosner says. “I think the proof is in the fact that, very thankfully, we haven’t had a very serious illness, no hospitalization of students with serious illness, no spread to the community. And in that respect, I think we’ve done very well.”