Four weeks after the class of 2024 arrived in Williamsburg, returning upperclassmen students at the College of William and Mary moved into campus residence halls over Labor Day Weekend. Their arrival sparked the heralding of the university’s transition into the next stage of its COVID-19 response stage. As in-person classes begin Tuesday, Sept. 8, the College and other Virginia universities face uncertain circumstances brought on by COVID-19. 

College enters next stage of COVID-19 response 

 According to its COVID-19 dashboard, the College had completed 7,200 COVID-19 tests as of Sept. 7. This test count reflects the College’s intention to test all returning students before permitting them on campus. Of these tests, only 20 positive cases have been reported, with all positive cases taking place before students returned on campus. This indicates limited community spread at this stage of the College’s re-opening.  

The College has employed multiple preventative measures to combat COVID-19’s spread in Williamsburg, including mandatory mask-wearing, social distancing protocols, prevalence testing and ‘party patrols’ monitoring large gatherings on and off campus. After a series of texts and emails sent to students the last week of August that implied poor compliance with interim protocols, the College reminded community members to exercise caution when upperclassmen move in. 

“We cannot let up.”

“We cannot let up,” Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler ‘88, Ph.D. ‘06 said in an email sent to students Sept. 4. “Our commitment to each other is especially critical this weekend and in the week ahead as a new cohort of 1600+ students join our in-person community. Spikes in positive COVID-19 cases at other institutions came in the first few days after students arrived on campus, often as a result of large gatherings where mask-wearing and physical distancing expectations were ignored.” 

Additionally, like many other Virginia universities, the College has established a quarantine and isolation facility in Richmond Hall, which has housed several temporary residents since students returned to campus Aug. 12. The hall’s occupancy holds a strong influence over the university’s ability to safely manage the COVID-19 situation on campus. 

“Students should be prepared with personal items, books, computers, cell phones, etc for approximately 14 days.”

“Richmond Hall has been structured to provide a clean, comfortable option for students who must quarantine or isolate, but by its nature it will be restrictive,” College spokesperson Suzanne Clavet said in an email. “Students should be prepared with personal items, books, computers, cell phones, etc for approximately 14 days.” 

In a normal academic year, Richmond Hall provides housing for up to 180 students in singles, doubles and triples. Since most interim housing assignments are singles to keep students away from their peers while in Richmond Hall, the facility can hold approximately 90-100 quarantined students at any given time. Access outside for students staying in Richmond during their university-prescribed quarantine and isolation is strictly prohibited.  Clavet described that stepping out of one’s assigned room for sunlight or exercise would constitute a violation of the College’s Healthy Together Community Commitment. 

 “While we understand the need for sunlight, even if we were to allow folks to sit directly outside their door, we would open up the possibility that other members of our community might be exposed,” Clavet said. 

While conditions on campus and occupancy in Richmond remained stable throughout August, the return of upperclassmen to Williamsburg raises the College’s on-campus population to its highest point since early March, potentially setting the stage for an uncertain future regarding the university’s ability to control COVID-19. 

Virginia universities struggle to combat virus spread 

 The College has not yet experienced significant infection rates among on-campus students and staff, in sharp contrast to other Virginia universities. James Madison University announced Sept. 1 that it would transition to predominantly online learning and close residence halls until Sept. 25, at which point the university will decide whether students return to Harrisonburg, Va. for in-person instruction after Oct. 5. JMU’s closure makes it the first university in Virginia to suspend in-person classes after the beginning of the semester. 

 As of Sept. 4, JMU had reported 772 positive COVID-19 cases according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, outpacing other Virginia institutions.  

 “In the days since students have been back on campus, we have observed their vibrancy, excitement to engage with their faculty, and large-scale adherence to COVID-19 rules and guidance,” JMU President Jonathan Alger said in a Sept. 1 statement. “However, we have also observed troubling public health trends. As a result of a rapid increase in the number of positive cases of COVID-19 in our student population in a short period of time, the university is concerned about capacity in the number of isolation and quarantine spaces we can provide.” 

 Also reporting hundreds of cases is Virginia Tech, which has recorded 416 positive cases since Aug. 9; of those cases, 238 — more than half — were recorded in the past week. Other Virginia universities have also seen sizable case counts in the past few weeks as students have returned to their campuses, potentially foreshadowing the College’s future since upperclassmen have finally returned to Williamsburg. The University of Virginia, for example, has reported 161 student cases since Aug. 17, with the bulk of these cases materializing after undergraduate classes began Aug. 25 and students moved back on campus.  

 In addition to rising case counts, several Virginia colleges and universities are experiencing strain on their COVID-19 response plans. For example,  according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Radford University is nearing capacity in its quarantine housing, with a university spokesperson commenting that 40 of Radford’s 54 interim facility slots are being used as of Sept. 5. Similar trends were visible at JMU before it ultimately decided to close, with 92 percent of isolation beds being occupied before the university temporarily shut down. 

 More similarly to the College, other Virginia universities have not yet seen quarantine housing reach capacity. Virginia Commonwealth University, which has provided isolation housing for students testing positive for COVID-19 since the university reopened Aug. 17, currently has 29 of 160 beds full. Like Richmond Hall, these students have been transported to an alternative dormitory serving as a temporary isolation facility. 

 As Virginia universities move beyond Labor Day Weekend and infection risk fluctuates, students and staff face an uncertain public health environment. This reality has prompted a univocal piece of advice from the College: be mindful and be intentional to preserve an in-person semester. 

“We ask that you join into our shared norms with curiosity and respect: be mindful of the effort it takes to integrate COVID-19 rules of conduct into daily, healthy social habits.”

 “We ask that you join into our shared norms with curiosity and respect: be mindful of the effort it takes to integrate COVID-19 rules of conduct into daily, healthy social habits,” Ambler said. “Those habits will be the key to a successful in-person fall semester at W&M.”