On Monday, commuting students returned to campus for in-person classes for the first time since November. Off-campus students who intended to take classes in person were generally not allowed to come on campus from Jan. 25 to Feb. 8, and instead had to take classes remotely. This policy, announced by University of Richmond administrators in a Jan. 24 email, cited a rise in off-campus student COVID-19 cases as the reasoning behind the ban.
There were 79 COVID-19 cases among students, faculty and staff as of the morning of Jan. 24, according to the Jan. 24 email, sent by Steve Bisese, vice president of student development; David Hale, executive vice president and chief operating officer; and Jeffrey Legro, executive vice president and provost. Notably, off-campus students’ tests had a positivity rate of 17%, versus on-campus students’ 1.4%, according to the email.
The number of active cases reported on the UR COVID-19 Dashboard increased to 115 in data reported on Jan. 29, before decreasing to 96 on Feb. 5. As of Feb. 5, 36% of on-campus isolation space and 22.5% of on-campus quarantine space was occupied, according to the dashboard. Isolation space is for students who have tested positive for COVID-19; quarantine space is for those who have come in close contact with someone who has tested positive.
Off-campus students were only allowed to come to campus for COVID-19 prevalence testing; medical care from the Student Health Center; and to pick up pre-reserved library materials from outside of Boatwright Memorial Library, or class materials from the outdoor mobile bookstore, according to the Jan. 24 email.
In an exception to this rule, student-athletes living off campus were allowed to use UR athletic facilities and practice with teammates who live on campus.
The stricter measures came after a previous warning about a rise in cases on campus.
In a Jan. 22 email, Bisese warned students about an uptick in COVID-19 cases in the campus community. He noted that positive cases among students were typically associated with maskless social gatherings, and wrote that UR was aware of two parties, one on campus and one off campus, that had occurred during the first week of classes.
“If this behavior does not cease, we will face the prospect of going remote like we did last spring,” Bisese wrote.
Although UR did not have a plan for the scenario of a higher positivity rate among off-campus students, the restriction was pulled from contingency plans formed during the fall semester, said Shannon Sinclair, UR vice president and general counsel, in an interview with The Collegian on Feb. 6.
Given increasing COVID-19 cases in Virginia and across the United States, school officials expected to see more positive cases during arrival testing, Sincalir said. But they were surprised by the difference between on- and off-campus students, she said.
The decision to ban off-campus students was a difficult one, but school officials thought it was the best way to ensure the success of an in-person semester, Legro said in an interview with The Collegian on Feb. 6.
Theta Chi fraternity, already in jeopardy over previous issues, threw a party on Jan. 16 that UR is aware of, Associate Director of Greek Life Meg Pevarski wrote in a Jan. 28 reply to a student email voicing concerns about Theta Chi breaking social distancing rules. That email chain was later obtained by The Collegian.
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The Center for Student Involvement is aware of the allegations surrounding Theta Chi and all efforts to collaborate with offices to manage conduct, Pevarski said in an email to The Collegian on Feb. 3. Theta Chi Fraternity is currently a suspended student organization.
Many off-campus students are concerned about the quality of their education while learning remotely and frustrated that they are unable to use facilities and on-campus services they paid for, although they understand the reasoning behind the policy.
Administrators mostly heard from students about academic-related concerns, Hale said in an interview with The Collegian.
Senior Jennifer Kramer recognized that UR officials were facing many challenges in navigating COVID-19 policies, but she was frustrated that she and her roommates were unable to use on-campus facilities despite testing negative for COVID-19, she said.
The fact that student-athletes were still able to use the gym was unfair to other off-campus students, Kramer said.
Kramer also questioned why the off-campus positivity rate was higher than the on-campus positivity rate.
“We think that the off-campus numbers are so high because there’s so few of us,” Kramer said. “And that's what kind of annoyed us — because we believe that more on campus people have it than off-campus [people], like all together.”
Kramer faced challenges with online classes, she said. For example, it was difficult to hear professors on Zoom, she said.
“Pretty much everybody on Zoom will message each other and be like, ‘Did you hear what they said?’ Or, ‘I can't hear them at all,’” Kramer said.
Having to decide which classes to keep during the add/drop period without being able to attend them in person was especially difficult, Kramer said.
Junior Claire McLam’s anatomy professor had to move labs online temporarily to equalize the educational experience of students, she said. The off-campus student ban was frustrating for McLam because she and her apartment mates had been careful to avoid risky situations, McLam said.
“You don't want to put your classmates at risk, but at the same time, you want to get the same education everyone else is getting,” McLam said.
McLam said she had seen students posting videos and pictures of large gatherings off campus on social media. It was disappointing to see others partying when she could not even attend classes, she said.
“I know that things are starting to pick up on campus, and I just wonder if the ban or the moving online might be more beneficial if it included everyone,” McLam said.
Senior Will Walker was initially irritated that he was unable to use his meal plan, which he bought to encourage himself to use on-campus resources, he said. But after further consideration, he understood the decision considering the high case numbers, Walker said.
“It's just very frustrating, quite frankly, to be grouped into this community of people who appear to not be following the rules when some of us are, and I can say most of us probably are,” Walker said.
Walker noted that almost as many students tested positive in the first two weeks of this semester as last fall’s 138 total cases, and suggested UR start considering “cutting its losses” and think about sending students home.
It is hard to please everyone: about half of the students and parents who communicate with administrators think UR needs stricter COVID-19-related policies, and the other half think UR is too strict, Bisese said in an interview with The Collegian.
He was glad to send the email to students announcing the end of the ban, he said.
Contact news writer Eileen Pomeroy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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