Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020
Sophomore Shraddha Harikumar tries to keep her distance from others while on the Virginia Commonwealth University campus for her one in-person class this semester.
“I get anxious about COVID-19. I’m very particular about that,” she said.
Harikumar isn’t alone in her anxiety. COVID-19 is on everyone’s mind.
VCU’s phased return to campus — following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state, city and VCU Health guidance — began in August. The responsibility to keep everyone safe is a shared one that entails everything from health monitoring through testing and completing a daily health survey to wearing a mask and applying physical distance.
But, is everyone adhering to the guidelines? Do people feel comfortable on campus?
Harikumar, a student in the Honors College who is studying political science in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is doing her part to stay safe. When she’s on campus, she always sanitizes anything she touches. “I want to make sure everything is clean.”
She said she feels comfortable in her class because everyone wears a mask and practices social distancing. Outside of class “there are also a handful of students that are not wearing masks,” she said.
When it comes to following the guidelines, she believes VCU is doing “a little better than other universities.”
“I think they have done a good job so far,” she said.
Adjusting to the changes
VCU News spoke with six students and four employees during the first weeks of the fall semester about the university's return to campus. Out of those conversations emerges a picture of life at VCU this fall and some consistent themes in opinion.
Like Harikumar, the students and employees we spoke with think VCU did a good job over the summer preparing for people to return to campus and that the university has done a good job communicating about the need to create physical distance and wear a mask. They expressed concern about the danger of COVID-19 and the task of keeping facilities clean — especially popular indoor spaces. They said they feel safe in their classes, where people are consistently wearing masks and are spread out. They said many people also wear masks outside of classes, but some do not.
Overall, they believe VCU has done a better job than some other colleges and universities.
Trinitee Pearson, a senior in the School of the Arts, said she feels “pretty safe when I am on campus and in class.” She has noticed major changes in her in-person theater class.
“Normally students are touching hands, but we are limiting that as much as we can. We have disinfectant wipes so we can clean the area and clean the floor,” she said. “I have about 10 people in my class, and I have known these people for three to four years. I trust them enough that we can continue to gather like this.”
Pearson said she is concerned about keeping facilities clean. She said she feels relatively confident about having in-person classes because of the precautions being taken.
“It looks like everybody is following the rules VCU has put into place,” Pearson said.
It is a different type of semester on campus. Classrooms and common areas have been outfitted to create physical distance between people. Signs and placards indicate occupancy limits and provide reminders of safety guidelines. Plexiglass partitions provide barriers in situations where people can’t keep their distance. The university’s custodial staff is frequently cleaning high-touch and high-use surfaces like door handles, light switches, elevator buttons, restrooms, railings and tables. VCU provided supply kits for students and employees and has stocked vending machines with extra hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and face coverings.
And, of course, there are fewer people. Students are taking classes in person, online, or in a combination of both. Employees are working on campus, from home, or in a hybrid of the two. Campus is still active — lectures and laboratory classes are meeting and campus organizations are still connecting students — but there are noticeably fewer people walking around on a daily basis.
It is a big change for junior Erin Murray. The cinema major is “used to seeing people talking,” and interacting, but now “people are social distancing,” she said. “There is less of a social connection.”
She was nervous about going back to campus before the semester started but “while I was there I felt safe,” she said.
“It seems like pretty much everyone is wearing masks inside,” she said. “Outside they don’t wear them as much.”
David Wyatt, a senior international studies student in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, went back to school with “apprehensions and fear because so many people attend school,” he said.
At first he didn’t feel safe, especially in places like the Student Commons that require more frequent cleaning and after VCU reported 72 new student cases of the virus from Aug 24-30.
“I was scared because of the number of cases of the virus from [that] one-week period,” Wyatt said.
The numbers that week have thus far been the highest of the semester, according to VCU’s COVID-19 dashboard, which tracks active cases, testing and cumulative cases at the university. VCU’s new case numbers have declined in recent weeks, from those 72 for the week ending Aug. 30 to 10 for the week ending Oct. 2. The university has administered more than 6,600 tests since mid-August.
Wyatt does believe VCU has made a “great effort to tell everyone to wear masks.”
“They have done a good job of that,” he said, adding that social distancing is adhered to with strangers more than with friends. “I do see small groups of friends together.”
‘I think VCU did what they said they would’
The adjustments across campus are not limited to physical changes. There are new protocols as well. Dining halls are limiting occupancy to 50% capacity and featuring contactless payment options. VCU Libraries has reduced seating. People must register in advance to work out at Cary Street Gym and must make an appointment to be seen at Student Health Services. Attendance was significantly limited at faculty convocation. VCU is conducting prevalence testing and has a contact tracing unit on campus.
Inside the university's residence halls, some common areas and lounges have been closed, and there are fewer people. About 4,200 students are currently living on campus — about 2,000 less than this time last year, according to VCU Residential Life and Housing.
Still, there are challenges, said sophomore Lindsey Schwartzkopf. She said people are more relaxed about safety protocols in the residence halls.
“I don’t think people are taking it seriously in the residence halls,” she said. “Not all people are leaving their masks on in the halls.”
However, Schwartzkopf, an art education student, said everyone is doing a good job of socially distancing and wearing a mask in her in-person class.
“I feel relatively safe in class,” she said. “All of the seating is 6 feet apart, and we wash down our tables before and after [class].”
Schwartzkopf, whose sister and boyfriend are at other colleges, feels VCU is doing better at following guidelines than other schools.
“I think some colleges pretend they are completely on top of it. I think VCU did what they said they would in late summer. They are supplying masks and cleaning materials and doing daily health checks,” she said, adding she hopes VCU will clamp down on people not following the guidelines.
Because there are not as many people on campus, Nicole Jimenez, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Medicine’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, has had less interaction with peers and professors. “There are not as many people in the labs so we don’t have the collaboration that was going on before,” she said.
Inside her building everyone is following protocols, she said.
“People are following the stickers on elevators and things are spaced out in the classrooms, labs and workspaces. Everybody is wearing a mask,” she said. “Outside, especially on the medical campus, you don’t know who you are running into. It could be a student or just someone going into the hospital. It’s a little bit more of the unknown.”
Working on campus
Margaret Kelland, the Facilities Management Monroe Park Campus coordinator, has been on campus full time since early June and was involved in many of the preparations for the university’s reopening with new safety measures for COVID-19.
She feels the university is doing all it can to keep everyone safe.
“VCU has worked hard to communicate, and I think we need to continue to do that,” she said. “There is a lot of fear and apprehension, especially when people first return to campus, and we need to continue to provide and reinforce good information.”
Wayne Newman, a project inspector in renovations in Facilities Management, was leery about coming back to campus in the beginning because “no one knew much about COVID.”
“I am a designated worker and have followed all the protocols,” Newman said. “I think if you follow protocols, it’s a safe environment. I think everybody is sticking to the rules.”
Patricia Cummins, Ph.D, a professor in the School of World Studies, teaches Advanced French Comprehension, which typically would be held in a classroom of 25 in Hibbs Hall. This semester it has been moved to the Academic Learning Center in a classroom that accommodates 50 people. She is glad her class meets in such a large room.
“I have about 21 students and they are able to stay at least 6 feet apart,” she said, adding that she thinks the administration has tried “its best to get things right.”
The anxiety students are feeling on campus has many of them seeking out more resources around building positive mental health and resilience, said Trisha Saunders, associate director of the Health Promotion and Well-Being Center (The Well).
“They are looking for ways we can engage in self-care for the long haul,” Saunders said. “Students want to engage. For students, it’s about trying to process information so quickly. It can be overwhelming and sometimes a challenge.”
She finds it encouraging that everyone is finding their way together.
“No one can lead the way for us,” she said. “As we all struggle through this in our own different ways I think we are also taking the time to check in with each other, making sure everyone is accounted for and attended to. The level of grace for each other is so inspiring.”
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