Masked, distanced, sanitized, tented and capacity-reduced, life on Grounds resumed for the fall semester in a borderline state perhaps best captured by a sign hung by one longtime Corner merchant:
Sort of open.
On Sept. 8, the first morning of in-person instruction, the usual river of students plying McCormick Road was a mere trickle. A lone jogger made her way up the slope toward Monroe Hill, nothing to block the sound of her footfalls from 10 yards away. A food truck vendor kept watch for customers near McIntire Amphitheatre. The buzzing of cicadas in the trees broke the quiet.
The physical and virtual universities—two complementary UVAs—intertwined in novel ways unique to the hybrid semester.
“I’m actually in a class right now,” said Kayla Kusel (Col ’24), a first-year student from Boca Raton, Florida, as she walked up McCormick with earbuds in. She was headed to the amphitheater, as good a place as any to attend class on a sun-splashed morning.
“I’m enjoying the fact that I get to explore Grounds while I take my classes,” she said.
The Class of 2024 had arrived the previous weekend, after two weeks of virtual instruction and against a backdrop of rising coronavirus case numbers and botched attempts at other schools to return to in-person learning. UVA itself had delayed its restart as it shored up its testing supply chain, studied the lessons of other universities, added isolation and quarantine space and did its best to prepare for the unknown.
It was a big ask: attempting to do what other universities had flamed out at so publicly. Leadership appealed to students’ sense of community and shared responsibility in asking them to sacrifice for the greater good—while also warning of the consequences of noncompliance.
An 11-week trek to the finish line of Thanksgiving was on, a test of stamina and discipline. Any slackening of collective vigilance, and the entire operation could go back online.
Many expected it would. Among the doubters was Deniz Sezer (Com ’21, Col ‘21), a fourth-year student from Atlanta who expressed her skepticism to friends the day in-person classes began.
“I give it a month, tops,” she said.
Virginia paused before taking the plunge, a two-week delay that was crucial to having a chance to succeed at in-person classes, President James E. Ryan (Law ’92) told Virginia Magazine.
“What we didn’t appreciate at the time was how much we would learn from schools that started before us,” Ryan said in mid-September. “And so watching what happened at other schools, it made us really focus on, one, making sure that there are clear expectations about following health and safety protocols, whether students are living on Grounds or not. Second, having a robust testing plan is really important, and third, having enough isolation and quarantine space is really important.”
Some 15,000 students were already in Charlottesville when online classes began Aug. 25. The virus was expected to arrive with them and did not tarry. Student cases went from 40 on Aug. 28 to 161 on Sept. 4.
The number was manageable, and UVA went about reopening. Tents were erected around Grounds to provide places for students to study and meet. Among the spots commandeered were the basketball courts near the Dell, a proving ground for generations of pickup players and one place where physical distancing had always been frowned upon.
As unusual as the sight of no ball at the Dell was the scene over at Newcomb Hall, where longtime cashier “Miss Kathy” McGruder was glad to be back at work at the dining facility after months away, but she missed the usual throngs as lunchtime approached.
“Normally we would have had three or four hundred people by now,” she said, glancing at her watch in between swiping in the occasional student.
Such crowds likely weren’t returning this semester. Dorms were two-thirds full. Just 30 percent of classes had an optional in-person component, giving many of those who lived off-Grounds little reason to come on.
Those who did found plenty of elbow room, even on the Lawn, where signs implored students and visitors to keep their distance.
Tess Enderson (Col ’22) and Garvey Cummings (Col ’22) spread a blanket there and took in the subdued reopening vibe. They had been on spring break in Florida when they were told they could not return. Six months later, they had just one in-person class between them but felt having feet on Grounds made them more connected to school, even if most of it was virtual.
“I think there’s a consensus among a lot of people that they are a lot more motivated here,” Enderson said. “At home, it kind of feels like almost more of a vacation-type thing.”
In classrooms, distancing was not left to chance. In Room 130 in Monroe Hall, students filing in for the first in-person section of EGMT 1540—Ethical Engagement made their way to seats marked “Please Sit Here.” The classroom, which has a capacity of 100 in non-pandemic times, held 23 students.
Chad Wellmon, an associate professor of German Studies and principal of Brown College, stood at a desk in the front of the room, maskless, which was allowable provided he stayed behind a plexiglass barrier.
“I’m Chad Wellmon. Good to meet you,” he said.
They’d met before, virtually. Now, there were 23 masked first-year faces in his classroom and 15 in an adjacent room, connected via Zoom. Five other students were off-site. A monitor at the front of the room merged the three groups into one hybrid classroom.
An energetic lecturer, Wellmon peppered his students with questions, doing his best to include everyone, not just the faces in front of him. “What about next door?” he’d say, trying to draw students from the adjacent classroom into the dialogue.
Many jumped in, despite the occasional technical glitch of echoing feedback. A student teaching assistant even made a drive-by introduction, literally, from a car. (The passenger seat, in case you were wondering).
“Sadly, this is my only in-person class,” Jason Blake (Col ’24), a first-year from Exmore, Virginia, said after the class, which moved outside to a tent behind Monroe Hall for the final 45 minutes.
“It felt good to actually be united with my classmates. With virtual classes, it can be harder to make friends,” he said. “Getting in these surroundings, it’s easier to talk to people. I had a good group I could talk with.”
For the first time since arriving, it truly felt like college, he said.
At home, first-year students soon got a far more sober reminder that they had come to college during a pandemic.
Wastewater monitoring was a key prong of the University’s containment strategy, along with a daily health check app, symptomatic testing, and mandatory random testing of students. Behind the first-year dorms along Alderman and McCormick roads, robots were taking samples of fluid every 15 minutes, which were then daily sent to a lab for testing.
The idea for such testing at UVA came from Dr. Amy Mathers, an associate professor of medicine and pathology and associate director of microbiology at the School of Medicine.
“If you live together you can’t wear a mask 24 hours a day,” Mathers said. “So the people that live together are the highest risk places where the worst outbreaks occur.”
Because people shed the virus before they have symptoms, wastewater testing is an early-warning system. It’s also a way to avoid the complicated chain of custody that comes with other forms of testing.
“All the logistics of that—even the idea of getting the right people into testing—those are huge manpower efforts,” Mathers said.
If wastewater indicates potential infections, a dorm’s residents are tested. Wastewater testing began Sept. 7. Eight days later, residents of the Balz-Dobie dorm were the first to be tested. Four others—Lefevre, Echols, Kellogg and Hancock—fell like dominoes.
For the affected students, the testing procedure ground Grounds life, such as it was, to a halt. Students received a text telling them to return to their rooms for testing. Dorms were shut down and residents quarantined up to 48 hours while tests were administered, results received, and those who tested positive—or had come into contact with someone who had—were sent to isolation or quarantine. Others were given an all-clear sign.
Testing at the dorms turned up 48 cases, and no shortage of anxiety, although some members of the class—a resilient cohort that had already missed out on high school graduation, prom and so much else—seemed to handle the latest disruption with equanimity.
“At the end of the day, being proactive will keep us afloat,” first-year student Nickolaus Cabrera (Col ’24), told the Cavalier Daily.
Avery Gagne (Col ’21), a resident adviser at Hancock who expressed himself on Twitter, was not quite as even-keeled, RAs being on the front lines in the affected dorms.
“I’m just mentally gone, exhausted and stressed,” he wrote.
As the semester went on, many could relate, including Ana Stanisavljev (Com ’21, Col ’21), a fourth-year student from Vienna, Virginia.
“Students are going a little bit insane right now,” she said, two weeks into hybrid instruction.
A commerce and Spanish double major, Stanisavljev was a discussion leader for an introductory business course and had planned to teach in-person. Before she could, however, a contact tracer from the Blue Ridge Health District notified her of a potential exposure to a person who had tested positive for COVID-19.
Stanisavljev quarantined. It gave her time to reflect on the futility of asking college students to socially distance and had her questioning whether the University’s decision to reopen had been the right call, she said.
Where she lives, in a house with 10 other women, no one is testing the wastewater. Her roommates have their own social circles. Most have boyfriends, who have their own circles.
“We’re such an interconnected network that it is impossible even if you are upholding the highest standards to really evade any risk,” she said. “It’s very confusing, as a student, to try to figure out how to live right now, to be honest.”
Stanisavljev questioned whether the University really knew how students felt, and whether it was doing enough to look after their mental health. “To be quite honest, it’s been a wild ride,” she said.
Christopher P. Holstege, director of the Elson Student Health Center, said UVA has doubled the number of counseling and psychiatric professionals since 2013 and continues to add resources, including a new student health facility with expanded capacity for group and individual therapy. Thanks to COVID, student health has integrated tele-counseling into the mix. Bottom line, he said: “There’s not a wait for anybody who’s in crisis.”
The virus hasn’t been given to waiting either. With cases rising—a single-day high of 57 positive tests among students was recorded Sept. 17—and reports of large gatherings of students and inconsistent adherence to distancing and masking guidelines reaching University leaders, Ryan on Sept. 21 announced tighter restrictions would be implemented for two weeks to stay ahead of the virus. The restrictions were extended for an additional two weeks on Oct. 6. Gatherings were limited to five people, down from a previous limit of 15. Students were required to wear masks at all times, except at home, when eating, or exercising outside or at the indoor recreational facilities.
Students were also asked not to leave Charlottesville, not to have visitors from out of town, and, if they couldn’t stay 6 feet from others in a bar or restaurant, not go in.
Interim suspensions had already been issued, Ryan said. The University would be more vigilant going forward.
“I still believe we can do this, but it will take everyone’s very best effort,” Ryan said.
On Sept. 19, Clemons Library was closed for the second time in four days because too many patrons were not complying with masking requirements. Evicted patrons emerged into the afternoon light, rubbing their hands with sanitizer.
Librarians kept track of compliance with a homegrown app, walking around and recording data on an iPad every hour. A recorded warning regularly plays over the sound system, library director of communications Elyse Girard said. “The librarians give them the most opportunities to do the right thing.”
By Oct. 2, the University’s COVID Tracker reported 270 active cases—defined as positives in the previous 10 days that required isolation—and 840 total cases since tracking began Aug. 17. Of those, 252 active and 768 total cases were student cases. Twenty-three people were hospitalized.
The previous morning, Department of Medicine Chair Dr. Mitch Rosner and UVA’s Chief Operating Officer J.J. Davis announced contingency plans that had been approved by leadership. The possibilities included moving all undergraduate instruction online, with possible exceptions for courses that can only be taught in person; prohibiting all gatherings on Grounds, limiting academic buildings to graduate students, faculty and staff; limiting libraries to contact-less pickup and online services, limiting dining to pick-up, mobile ordering and grab and go; closing rec facilities and mandating telework for as many employees as possible.
With midterms approaching, Zoom fatigue was already widespread, and not just for students. Teaching virtually or hybrid was its own endurance test.
Wellmon likened it to an IT boot camp, fraught with potential technical snags. Assistant professor of commerce Jeffrey Leopold, who taught Foundations of Commerce to mostly first- and second-year students, said that in a typical year, he would teach three sections in a 170-seat auditorium. Now, he taught the same number of students in the same three sections from his home office in Richmond, which presented its own challenges.
Leopold’s students were all over the globe, which meant that to see his lectures live, a student in China would have to watch them during the middle of the night. Other students complained of internet problems during quizzes. Several of his discussion leaders were in and out of quarantine.
Like many professors, Leopold recorded his lectures so students could watch on their own time.
“I believe a synchronous lecture is a better education than recording,” he said. “Recording is better than (students) being half-asleep.”
Faculty members took various approaches. Batten professor Gerry Warburg opted for an all-virtual format he called “Super Zoom” for his two graduate school seminars—Congress 101: Leadership Strategies, and Leadership in U.S. Foreign Policy Making. His classes came complete with intro and exit music, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and George Harrison’s “Here Come the Sun,” respectively. He compared it to producing a live television show every day, with no rehearsal.
“I’ve hung up on [UVA President] Jim Ryan in my class. That has happened,” he said. “It’s live, all the time.”
But Warburg was also able to get U.S. senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and five Virginia congressional representatives to meet with his class for “searingly candid” off-the-record discussions. Doing it via Zoom was far more efficient than trying to squeeze such meetings into a single trip to Capitol Hill, he said.
Law school professor Alex Johnson, whose teaching career spans nearly four decades, said his wife was concerned about him returning to in-person instruction. For him, the benefits were worth the risks.
“I did the Zoom stuff last semester, and it just wasn’t the same,” he said. “It just didn’t have the same enjoyment. It was more like a job.
“I just made the choice, yeah, I’m going to do it.”
Johnson taught 65 first-year law students in his contract class, in an auditorium with a capacity of more than 400. Another half-dozen or so took the class via Zoom.
In keeping with law-school tradition, Johnson made it a point to cold call students who were participating online, as well as those sitting in front of him.
For classes with a literal hands-on component, virtual learning was not an option. Or at least, not always a good one. After classes shut down last spring, chemistry professor Laura Serbulea taught an accelerated organic chemistry lab virtually. Though better than nothing, it was not the same as being in the lab.
“We found some software. It was as good as we could get during those times,” she said.
This semester, her labs are conducted in-person, with rooms at half-capacity and strict rules about social distancing.
“So far, so good,” she said in mid-October. “We have had no positive cases in my class. Every week I make sure I tell students how proud I am that they understand and respect the rules that were imposed.”
For her lecture classes, which are conducted virtually, Serbulea said she asked students to keep their computer cameras on.
“Last semester, I was seeing a black wall with names,” she said.
Making eye contact, even virtually, is important to building community, Serbulea and other faculty members said.
“This semester has definitely been difficult,” Batten professor Eileen Chou said. “That’s true for everyone. I think even though we are facing these challenges, I do not want to give them a discount education.
“It requires empathy, from both sides.”
And hope. Despite the persistent numbers—an average of 23 student cases per day by Sept. 30—and the growing sense of fatigue, Sezer, who had been pessimistic at first, saw signs of hope as the semester progressed.
“I am pleasantly surprised,” she said.
As both a discussion leader for Leopold’s class and a bartender at a Corner nightspot, Sezer had an inside view of two critical areas of student life.
In the classroom, students were more engaged than ever, she said. On the town, they kept their distance—except for one night when the crowds were “really scary,” she said. Sezer, who had come in to pick up her paycheck, turned around and left.
“It wasn’t as packed as it used to get, but it was more crowded than I’d seen,” she said. “Most of the time, it’s fine.
“We’re adjusting. I think it’s a positive thing that we’re still trying to do some stuff in person. It definitely comes with its challenges.”
For some, coping with those challenges meant focusing on what there was, not what there wasn’t. There would not be the usual 5,000 participants in intramural teams this semester—by mid-October, the count stood at about 600, in competitions like kickball, tennis and cornhole —but rec centers were open on a reduced-capacity basis. Masks at the ready, joggers logged their miles. Swimmers reserved lanes at the aquatic center. Frisbees flew at the Mad Bowl. Tennis courts stayed busy.
Fans could not attend, and the fence near the hill at Scott Stadium was blocked to prevent them from gathering outside, but Bronco Mendenhall’s team opened the year by thumping Duke and playing well in defeat at No. 1 Clemson. (The virus thinned the Cavaliers’ roster by seven for that game, the first positive tests reported by the football team.)
Grounds were as verdant as ever, the tableau as pleasing, even if so much was missing from the picture.
“The most important thing is we are open, at least,” vendor Mohammad Murtaza said on the first day back. He was not speaking of his food truck alone.
Sort of open.
“It’s the best you can hope for in this situation,” said Morgan Swigert (Col ’24), a first-year student from Minneapolis who was sitting under a tent with his roommate, Luke Napolitano (Col ’24), a first-year from Reading, Massachusetts.
Napolitano held a copy of On China, by Henry Kissinger, under his arm, and was preparing to dive into it for a class on international relations. That doing it here, near The Rotunda, was far preferable to doing it at home was “not even a question,” he said.
The only question was how long it would last.