Editors note: This article has been updated to reflect UR's decision to extend the universal indoor mask mandate until Nov. 5.
The University of Richmond’s Resilience of Operation Group makes recommendations to the president and leadership at UR regarding COVID-19 policies and protocols and includes representation from many departments across campus.
The Resilience Group comprises 20 members with representation from UR faculty, Academic Affairs, Student Development, the Student Health Center, Public Safety, Emergency Management, Dining Services, Campus Operations, Residence Life, Human Resources, Risk Management and Athletics, according to the Fall 2021 COVID-19 Response Plan.
UR Vice President and General Counsel Shannon Sinclair leads the Resilience Group, while the Virginia Department of Health provides guidance to the group and representatives from the Student Health Center regarding UR operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Henrico County Health Department representative who advises UR's decision-making suggested in an interview with The Collegian that UR should extend its mask mandate past Oct. 8 -- which the university did -- and potentially through the end of the semester if COVID-19 transmission rates do not decrease in the coming months.
As a private university in Virginia, UR is able to make decisions independently, regardless of VDH recommendations. Therefore, the Resilience Group can determine what to take into account when making recommendations to leadership at UR.
The group is divided into faculty and administration representation, Sinclair said.
“From an administrative perspective, we identified people who had areas of responsibility or personally had responsibility for various parts of both our COVID planning and our response," she said.
Sinclair said that there was a process in the Faculty Senate in which faculty members could get nominations to serve on administrative committees, including the Resilience Group. The group acquired two faculty representatives and one representative from the office of the provost who is also a faculty member this way.
As an expert in law who earned her degree from the University of Pennsylvania, Sinclair is able to provide guidance to the administrative and faculty members on the legalities involved in COVID protocols.
“As a lawyer, I think Shannon has a good idea of, you know, what we can and can't do, or what sort of legal gray area in terms of, for example, things like vaccine mandates, things like that,” Eugene Wu, biology professor and previous faculty representative for the Resilience Group, said.
Input from other members of the Resilience Group also contribute to Sinclair's COVID-19-related decisions.
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“What we did as a group was talk over the various options, giving Shannon Sinclair our best opinions about how each constituency viewed the situation. ... But in the end, Shannon was the decision maker about what happened,” Wu said.
In addition to Sinclair, other members of the Resilience Group give input based on their roles in the UR community, including Peter Smallwood, biology professor and Faculty Senate representative. Smallwood presents what is happening with the faculty and how they feel about COVID-19 and the protocols to the group, Wu said. This way, the Resilience Group is able to contribute more faculty input into its decisions because there are only two faculty members currently serving in the group, he added.
Members of the Resilience Group serve in one of five subcommittees that work with Sinclair in the the areas of situation monitoring: testing and contact tracing, isolation and quarantine case management and support for students, health management and support for faculty and staff, health promotion and compliance group for students and employees and procurement, according to the Response Plan.
Sinclair said the health promotion and compliance group for students and employees has helped develop the interim student conduct policies, including the Healthy Web Compact, while other teams have put together plans for isolation and quarantine protocols, looked at health management and support for faculty and staff or looked at the purchasing needs.
Other aspects of the resilience planning detailed in the Response Plan include information regarding the vaccine requirement and the physical distancing framework, as well as the mask policy and isolation and quarantine details.
The Resilience Group as a whole continues to meet on alternating weeks, or it meets more frequently if there are reasons to do so, Sinclair said.
The decisions to meet more often are typically based on a rise in the COVID-19 cases on campus or in the Richmond area, Wu said.
Though the Resilience Group has representation from many parts of UR's campus at these meetings, it lacks membership from one population: students.
“I don't know if the question of whether students should be on the committee ever came up while I was on the committee,” Wu said. “A lot of buy-in, into, like, following the rules that are put forward, involve the students. We put a heavy burden on the students in this case, and so it would be helpful for the students to be at the table to share their points of view.”
The group formed after all students had been sent home in March 2020, so getting student representation was not at the top of the Resilience Group's list at that time, Wu said.
Additionally, incorporating more faculty representatives into the Resilience Group -- especially those who study diseases -- could benefit UR, he said.
“What has made the group successful is the variety of perspectives that are heard in the group, so we're hearing from all different parts of campus,” he said. “The great thing is that the university has expertise in terms of faculty, like studying problems like pandemics, and so it wouldn't hurt for the university to draw from that expertise not provided over the past year.”
Some members currently serving in the Resilience Group work in close contact with public health officials, and they collectively look at the conditions and the potential effects of COVID-19 on campus operations, Associate Vice President for Media and Public Relations Cynthia Price wrote in an email to The Collegian.
UR announced in an email sent at 10:45 a.m. to students, faculty and staff that it will extend the mask mandate to Nov. 5, which was originally set to expire on Oct. 8.
Rebecca Olejer, a senior epidemiologist for the Henrico Department of Health, meets regularly with UR and helps make protocol decisions, such as whether to require masks in indoor and outdoor spaces.
“A subset of us have weekly meetings with representatives from the Richmond and Henrico health districts,” Sinclair said. “We ask them what they’re seeing in the community and what we ought to be aware of.”
Olejer has worked closely with UR since starting her position in December of 2017, she said.
In meetings with Student Health representatives and Resilience Group members like Sinclair, Olejer briefs them on community trends, including potentially large exposures or outbreaks, so that the campus can adjust its plans, Olejer said.
“For the Richmond metro-area, and even our surrounding counties, we are still in high-sustained transmission,” Olejer said.
Current area COVID-19 conditions have led to conversations about UR’s masking policies.
"On September 8, 2021, we announced the decision to extend the universal indoor mask requirement through October 8th," Sinclair wrote in an email to The Collegian. "As we indicated when we made that announcement, at that time available modeling indicated the likelihood of increasing cases in our region through early October."
The Resilience Group seeks to communicate the decisions and the rationale behind decisions effectively and promptly, Sinclair wrote.
After the Sept. 8 announcement, Olejer has been working with UR to come to further decisions related to mask-wearing on campus.
“One thing that we have spoken about in our recent meetings with the University of Richmond is the masking policy and how to social distance within classes,” Olejer said. “I think based on transmission that we’re seeing right now, I think it would definitely be a good idea to extend the mask policy.
"I know students may find it inconvenient, but it does help. And it does mirror those recommendations that we’re putting out into the community, as well."
Olejer said if transmission in the community significantly decreases in the coming months, UR may be able to lift its mask mandate by the end of the semester. Sinclair also remains hopeful that cases will decline, but it is too early to tell how conditions may change throughout the rest of the semester, she wrote.
When making recommendations to UR, Olejer said she often relies on guidance from the VDH or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which normally align well. In the past, Olejer and the VDH have helped UR with quarantine procedures, testing and vaccine clinics, in addition to giving guidance surrounding protocols.
“[Representatives from the VDH] provided us with really good advice on vaccines, … particularly for some of our international students that were vaccinated at home,” Sinclair said.
Rising vaccination rates have certainly helped the campus community, Olejer said. However, cases of COVID-19 may persist in the future.
“I think COVID isn’t necessarily just all of a sudden [going to] go to zero," she said. "I think we may continue to see spotty cases, and I don’t know the time frame, but I think that COVID may kind of stick around. With vaccination rates, hopefully there won’t be as many cases.”
Most schools, including UR, Virginia Commonwealth University and other community colleges in the area, have been very receptive of advice from the Richmond and Henrico health districts, she said.
Regardless of who is in the Resilience Group and who advises it, the decisions and protocols set forth would not be effective without the community's willingness to carry them out, Wu said.
“A great deal of credit goes to not only the people in the group, but also the entire community for following the rules as much as we have,” he said.
Contact copy chief Maddy Richard at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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