Signs displaying social distancing guidelines and asking local residents to not come to campus border the entrances to the University of Richmond's campus, which reopened to students, faculty and staff on Aug. 17. But the signs have not stopped non-UR-affiliated locals from visiting campus, sometimes without masks, igniting worry among students of a potential COVID-19 outbreak.
UR's campus was recently ranked the most beautiful campus in the U.S. by the Princeton Review and is a popular destination for Richmond locals, director of emergency management Brittany Schaal said.
As the fall semester begins, UR is keeping an open-campus policy, but buildings are closed to outsiders, which means non-UR-affiliated locals can still visit the outdoor spaces of campus freely, Schaal said. Although locals are not required to be tested for COVID-19 before coming to campus, their communities will be monitored for any infections.
Following James Madison University's recent move to fully remote learning after more than 500 on-campus cases of COVID-19 were reported, some UR students began expressing concern about what a potential COVID-19 outbreak would look like at UR.
Senior Kevin Shaw said he wondered what would happen if the outbreak were to start from someone who does not reside or work on campus. Shaw thinks visitors do not likely have the same sense of responsibility as UR faculty and students to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus, he said.
"One major difference between [visitors] and commuting students and faculty is that those affiliated with the university have an increased incentive and feel a responsibility to social distance and take measures to protect the campus," said Shaw, who is a commuter student living in nearby North Chesterfield. "Unaffiliated folks may not necessarily take those measures as seriously."
UR has informed the local community of UR's physical distancing guidelines by mail and the community-centered social network Nextdoor, a social networking service, Schaal said. Nextdoor allows UR to make posts and communicate with the surrounding neighborhoods, Schaal said.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, UR had used Nextdoor to notify surrounding neighborhoods of events on campus that may be disruptive, Schaal said.
UR used Nextdoor when UR had a traffic alert, a football game or was testing UR's emergency system, Schaal said. UR sent its most recent alert last Monday, asking for the community's help in protecting the land and shared responsibility for mitigating the spread of COVID-19, she said.
Although the local community has been notified about the new campus policies, many people have visited campus without a mask or without following proper distancing, Schaal said.
On May 28, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said that Virginia's mask mandate would rely on people's willing compliance rather than law enforcement. This compliance over enforcement policy remains true on UR’s campus, Schaal said.
“We're asking anyone on our campus to take on that share of responsibility and support of our health and safety guidelines," Schaal said.
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Schaal said students should speak out when people are violating protocol.
“If you see someone without a face covering, kindly remind them to put on a face covering, to maintain that physical distancing and continue to reiterate that message coming from multiple voices," she said.
Senior and Richmond College Student Government Association President AJ Polcari said he believed UR had done everything possible to ensure student safety.
"The signs across campus say that [buildings] should only be used by UR students and personnel," Polcari said. "The problem is that it’s hard to enforce that on a daily basis, so non-UR-people will probably still come on to campus. I would say that the biggest way that we could have an outbreak on our campus is if we do not follow the social distancing and mask guidelines consistently and faithfully.
"Also, if students choose to have parties on or off-campus, that could lead to an outbreak as well."
Schaal and Polcari said they were optimistic that students and locals would adhere to the safety guidelines.
"I believe we can continue to have the solid [cumulative] case numbers we have had thus far," Polcari said. "I really believe that our school community can do this."
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