Virginia colleges are set to resume in-person classes, but will need to submit comprehensive public health plans in order to reopen.
Gov. Ralph Northam announced new guidance for colleges on Thursday, unveiling the steps they must take in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as they bring students back to campus. The guidelines differ from the guidance unveiled earlier this week for the state’s K-12 schools, which focused on three phases for reopening. They give more autonomy for individual schools to create restart plans.
“Virginia has one of the best and most diverse systems of higher education in the nation, and each institution will take on this challenge in a way that meets their unique mission, location, circumstances, and student bodies,” Northam said. “A safe, responsible reopening of Virginia’s college and university campuses is critical, especially for students who depend on our campus communities to provide valuable resources that they do not have access to at home.”
The higher education reopening guidance instead requires colleges to monitor the virus and create plans to mitigate its spread.
While the higher education guidance does not include the phases that the K-12 guidelines do, it makes clear that the return to campus will look different.
“Expect a new normal,” said Peter Blake, director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
“More classes will be taught in an online or a hybrid manner, classes will be smaller, schedules will be staggered, residence life will be spread out, food service will be offered in nontraditional ways, and large-scale events such as performance art and athletics will be a new experience,” he said.
Blake added: “While life at our colleges and universities will change, the energy, creativity and commitment shown by faculty and staff ensures that the learning experience will not be sacrificed.”
The guidance says the virus “has put at risk” the more than $39 billion in annual economic impact that colleges create in the state and the 167,000 jobs associated with higher education.
“Reopening higher education in Virginia in a safe and sustainable manner must be a statewide priority,” the guidance says. “While much can be achieved online, it is also true that the classroom environment, collaboration, and mentoring remain vital.”
Classes transitioned online around mid-March when students were away for spring break, a similar time to when K-12 schools switched to virtual learning. The transition shook up how students learn and had a significant impact on college budgets, with some relief coming to Virginia schools through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
In the fall, they’ll face likely enrollment drops and campuses that look far different than what students left. Many colleges have already released reopening plans for the fall, but the new guidance includes “necessary” conditions for campuses to reopen.
Those include positive trends in public health data, with it being anticipated that “fall semester reopening of campuses would be most practicable” in the third phase of the statewide reopening plan or with “notably higher precautions” in Phase Two.
State officials also want colleges to have adequate capacity in nearby health care facilities — current capacity is stable, but returning students to campuses means increasing the populations in local communities — and following public health recommendations, such as social distancing and wearing face coverings.
“An institution must create a culture of compliance to encourage participation in the prescribed public health measures at all levels of the institution,” the guidance says.
The main part of the guidance is requiring colleges to submit plans for in-person instruction and reopening to the State Council of Higher of Education for Virginia by July 6. The agency, which oversees colleges in the state, will review the plans and make sure they have the required parts.
“Even in Phases Two and Three of the Forward Virginia Blueprint, it is likely that outbreaks of COVID-19 will continue, including on campuses,” the guidance reads. “Therefore, the campus plans outlined in this section should consider various contingencies for continuing operations in the event of a campus outbreak.
“Institutions must report cases and outbreaks to their local health department, and consult with their respective local health department regarding management of outbreaks, dismissals or similar decisions such as a shutdown of campus activities.”
Here are some parts of a college’s plan that it must address, according to the guidance:
- Establishing a COVID-19 coordinator or campus team;
- Training students, including the possibility of making COVID-19 prevention part of student orientation;
- Social distancing, including potentially limiting visitors;
- Figuring out what to do with dining services, with the potential for limiting the number of diners and eliminating buffet-style food; and
- Restricting the use of shared spaces, such as lounges and exercise rooms.
The guidance also requires colleges to look at housing because “it is difficult to maintain physical distancing in on-campus housing, even with modifications” and consider COVID-19 travel risks as it relates to international students.
Colleges must also create a COVID-19 testing strategy, develop a plan to contain the virus when it is detected and potentially shut down campuses if there’s a severe spread.
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