After a quiet summer, our campuses are ready to welcome new and returning students, and we are excited about the semester ahead. In recent weeks, we experienced the freedom and joy gained from highly effective vaccines. At the same time, our enthusiasm has been tempered by the news of a fourth surge of COVID-19 and the emergence of more transmissible and dangerous variants.
The good news is that with 18 months of experience we now have the knowledge and tools to minimize the risk while returning to many of the things that define the UMW experience. And our greatest tool is the high vaccination rates among our students and employees. This is the single most important thing we could all do together to return to the in-person activities that are characteristic of the UMW experience.
This summer, the COVID Implementation Team shifted to a Public Health Advisory Working Group, embedding the work of the group within the offices of Student Health, HR, and Public Safety, as well as our COVID Care team, with leadership from COVID Monitoring and Tracing Coordinator Dave Fleming. Throughout the summer, he has been leading the Public Health Advisory Working Group in preparing for the fall in conversations about vaccinations, testing, masking, and tracing. Jeff McClurken, as UMW’s COVID Director, has been working with the other Public Higher Education COVID Directors and statewide officials at the VDH and the Departments of Education, Labor, and Commerce and Trade to clarify expectations, options, and directions for the fall.
Today, we write to share some additional important updates about the fall semester and how we will approach together our return to campus. In doing so, we are informed by ongoing guidance from VDH and the CDC, partnerships with the local Rappahannock Area Health District and Mary Washington Healthcare. Further direction has come from Governor Northam’s announcement on August 5, recent CDC Guidance for IHEs and vaccinated people, along with careful attention to local COVID conditions in the Fredericksburg, Stafford, and Spotsylvania area.
While the full details of our plan are contained in the COVID-19 Preparedness Plan for 2021-2022 Academic Year, here are the key highlights (please note: The Cabinet and the Public Health Advisory Working Group will regularly re-evaluate these guidelines depending on university and local conditions and numbers):
- Masks. Besides vaccines, the wearing of a well-fitting mask is highly effective at preventing the spread of the coronavirus, including its variants. Consequently, to start the semester, masks will be required indoors in public spaces, which include all classrooms, laboratories, meeting spaces, foyers and hallways, and auditoriums. Masks are not required in one’s own residence hall room, private offices, other spaces where you are alone, and when eating and drinking. We are also developing a process for limited exemptions to this indoor requirement for certain academic, co-curricular, and physical activities. We strongly recommend wearing a mask when outdoors in large groups.
- Mandatory vaccinations. Governor Northam’s directive requires vaccines for all state employees and contractors. While the majority of our employees and contractors have taken this step voluntarily, it is now a requirement. Exemptions to this requirement are limited and all employees who do not provide proof of vaccination are required to complete a COVID-19 test each week as a condition of employment. UMW’s testing of unvaccinated employees begins the week of August 23.
- Testing when symptomatic. One of the important changes to the CDC’s guidance in recent weeks is that everyone who has COVID symptoms, regardless of their vaccination status, should stay away from others and get tested. Students can contact the Student Health Center, while employees should consult their health care provider or get tested at a local pharmacy. In addition, vaccinated people who are exposed but are asymptomatic should get tested 3-5 days after their exposure.
We should also be taking sensible precautions for the next few weeks at least as we pay attention to current conditions. For example, utilizing Zoom and other technologies in the routine conduct of business is encouraged and will continue to be supported, especially when it avoids bringing large numbers of people together in-person when there is no direct discernable benefit. An approach that places a premium on in-person experiences (e.g. classes, office hours, and many other activities where being in the same space is uniquely valuable) can be balanced with virtual convenings where possible.
Similarly, for now, even with vaccines and masks, at a time when our region is one where there is substantial or high transmission of the virus, we should be sensible about large (over 150 people) indoor gatherings. This means holding large gatherings outdoors where possible. It also means promoting extra distancing by utilizing larger indoor spaces or taking advantage of streaming options for large gatherings that would typically involve congregation in auditoriums at or near capacity.
The steps outlined above offer us the best chance of resuming a high-quality in-person experience while mitigating the risks in a university community. Currently nearly 90% of our campus community has been fully vaccinated, but we are situated within a region for which the CDC reports substantial or high transmission of COVID-19 and relatively low vaccination rates. As conditions change, we anticipate regular re-evaluation of these modifications and adjusting accordingly throughout the semester and year.
Dave Fleming & Jeff McClurken