September 25, 2020

Message #4 from the Task Force

A message from the President’s Task Force.

Colleagues,

This is the fourth in a series of weekly messages from the COVID-19 Task Force. And while every week since the pandemic began has been difficult in its own way – from first learning about an abrupt pivot to remote instruction and telework and hearing challenging budget news, to our collective sadness about not being able to properly celebrate the accomplishments of our students – the Task Force pauses to acknowledge this especially painful week of violence and injustice in our community and across the nation. Yet, because higher education is both a force for social justice and a powerful antidote to individual and systemic racism and the anti-democratic impulse, we bring renewed determination to our efforts to return to campus this fall.

For the Task Force, the pace has quickened as the full-scope of fall planning comes into view. Our first attempt has undergone revision as we receive additional guidance from the Governor’s Office and the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) and consult with colleagues across the Commonwealth. Late last week, VDH released directions regarding testing and contact tracing. Contrary to the claim from some universities across the country that they will have large scale testing of all members of their community on reentry while using random sampling throughout the semester, VDH is urging institutions to focus scarce testing resources on symptomatic individuals and contacts of those who test positive. On Tuesday, Governor Northam introduced the Virginia Blueprint’s Phase II Guidance, which has many instructions for organizations and their operations and we are working to incorporate these best practices in our situation, even if the distinctive nature of a residential university like ours must be more restrictive than these phases. And, looking ahead to next week, we expect to receive additional guidance from the Governor’s Office and the state-wide education task force. Considering all of these inputs, we will then need to adapt UMW’s plan.

Also, you should know that we are planning for multiple scenarios, and striving to build a plan that is flexible and capable of adapting as circumstances change. As an example, we are modeling out different “COVID capacities” for our classrooms and learning spaces. We have seen estimates from other schools set the bar at 100 square feet/person while others have settled on 36 square feet/person. Our entire room inventory is being recalibrated and mapped to maximize opportunity for participation while minimizing the risk of transmission. We look to share those new capacities in the next week or two so that faculty and staff can continue the important work of reimagining the spaces in which we teach, learn, and work.

One thing is clear: The campus and the campus experience will be very different this fall. From an employee perspective:

  • We will wear masks
  • We will self-monitor our symptoms
  • Many of us will continue to telework and offices will develop rotations for employees to help ensure social distancing
  • Many of our reception and information desks/windows will be protected by plexiglass or similar barriers
  • Zoom will continue to be our meeting room for gatherings large and small

For our students, things will also be different:

  • On-campus dining will be grab-and-go, rather than gathering around a table
  • Common spaces in our residence halls will be limited and some halls will be empty, set-aside as quarantine and isolation spaces
  • Classrooms will be at lower capacities to account for social distancing
  • Some students will participate remotely
  • Events will be smaller and some of our traditions like Honor Convocation will be virtualized
  • Many meetings and office hours will be conducted virtually
  • And masks will be worn

And therein lies our challenge. What we know about what matters most in college – connections with others and deep learning experiences – are in many ways in direct conflict with the plans we are putting in place to return to campus. How then can we maximize opportunities, connections, and experiences while prioritizing the health and safety of all members of our community? How then even as we put up plexiglass and develop protocols for separation can we are introduce new ways of gathering and interacting?

Harnessing our collective creativity and energy to adapt to what we know matters is the task ahead. It is the work of the next weeks, months, and indeed, the next year. So, as always, if you have thoughts, concerns, or questions, you may reach out to us or other members of the Task Force. (For previous messages, go to EagleEye.) At the same time, we also really want to hear your ideas for how we might meet the challenge before us.

 

Jeff McClurken and Tim O’Donnell

Members of the President’s Task Force