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As Virginia colleges prepare to reopen, some parents, faculty sound an alarm

As a rising senior at Virginia Tech, Andrew Williams is “strongly encouraged” to test negative for COVID-19 before arriving on the Blacksburg campus next month.

But he probably won’t get that test. Not unless such an opportunity becomes more widely available around his home in the Hampton Roads area, where he works as a construction site inspector.

“It’s definitely ideal, but it’s definitely not as realistic,” Williams, 21, said of Tech’s testing plan, which includes asking students to quarantine for two weeks before returning. “People are doing different things, and some people can’t just have that time to isolate before they go back.”

Meanwhile, Williams’ sister, who attends the University of Virginia, will be sent a test kit in the mail, which she is required to return with a negative result. Radford University plans to test 1,700 on-campus students upon their arrival, while Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond aims to mail tests to all residential students.

As Virginia colleges prepare to reopen next month guided by a patchwork of plans, questions are arising from faculty, parents and students about whether universities, and the students themselves, can control the spread of COVID-19: Are college testing plans stringent enough? Will students take physical distancing seriously? Is it safe to hold classes on campus?

“If we continue on this trajectory in a month, there are no ways that any schools at any levels are going to be open,” Katie Carmichael, an associate professor of English at Tech, said Tuesday about national trends, noting that increased travel, especially to small college towns, will increase spread of the virus. “I think that any amount of movement is tempting fate.”

Amid a spike in COVID-19 cases in the Hampton Roads area, mostly among the young, Hampton University on Monday reversed course on reopening campus and announced classes would be online only. Big-name schools, including Harvard and Yale universities, have said all their classes will be remote for the fall.

But elsewhere in Virginia, 31 out of 33 colleges are planning for some type of in-person classes, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education tally as of Thursday.

“I am concerned about the return of students to campus because they are in the classroom for only a few hours a day, and we can’t control what they do during the other hours of the day,” Linsey Marr, a Tech professor and expert on the airborne transmission of diseases, said in an email Wednesday.

Although Marr isn’t teaching this fall, she said she would be comfortable holding in-person classes — so long as students wore masks and the room had proper ventilation, which she would measure with a portable carbon dioxide sensor.

But outside the classroom is another matter.

“I am not confident that 20-year-olds will follow guidelines for distancing and avoiding crowds because I remember being that age and highly valuing socializing with friends and taking risks,” she said. “I expect to see a lot more cases in Montgomery County.”

Issues with testing

Anyone who wants a COVID-19 test can get tested, the U.S. president said in March and again in May. That remains untrue today, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

“At this time, the New River Health District does not have the capacity to test every person returning to a college or university campus, and VDH does not recommend campus-wide testing of students or faculty/staff upon arrival or at certain set intervals,” Bobby Parker, a department spokesman, said in an email Friday.

So with the prospect of thousands of people on campuses, Virginia colleges must submit a plan to the state that includes a testing strategy. Local health departments help guide those.

“Again, one size does not fit all, and these are complicated and difficult decisions to make,” Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday.

Testing by colleges only makes sense without certain restrictions, said Thomas Kerkering, a Virginia Tech professor in the field of infectious disease and a member of the Roanoke health district’s communicable disease team, since 40% to 80% of people who test positive have no symptoms.

“So it doesn’t really do any good to limit testing to only those who have symptoms,” Kerkering said Tuesday on a health department conference call. “It would have to be a more generalized population that’s returning.”

Yet some college testing plans, such as those at Roanoke College and Hollins University, do not initially involve the testing of students who may be asymptomatic. Both colleges said the plans, which are subject to change, were made in consultation with VDH epidemiologists.

In its four-page “interim testing recommendations” for colleges, VDH recommends testing for asymptomatic persons who have had close contact with people who tested positive for COVID-19, only “as resources permit.”

If anything is to help Tech reopen in the fall, President Tim Sands said in May, “it’s going to be the ability to test significant numbers of individuals, not just on campus but in the community, with less than 24-hour turnaround.”

A university spokesman Friday said the amount of testing supplies and the capacity to analyze them will become clearer closer to the start of the semester. Tech’s testing plan asks an estimated 9,000 on-campus students to get tested, which the university says would give a representative snapshot of 30% of the total student population.

The plan also encourages other students to get tested off-site and remain in quarantine, recommendations students and parents say will be hard to do.

“I’m just spinning in circles because I refuse to pay for a test that could be false negative, false positive,” Gail Asher, 59, of Newport News said about trying to secure a test for her son, who does not have symptoms. “He could pick it up on the way down to Blacksburg.”

“Virginia Tech recognized that access to COVID tests is not consistent across the country,” Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski said in an email Friday. “That is why in the plan testing prior to returning is a recommendation. The additional recommendation to quarantine for 14 days prior to return minimizes the opportunity to return to Blacksburg with the virus.”

Deborah Mayo, a professor emerita at Tech who studies the philosophy of statistics, said Tech’s testing plan’s “vague and not enforceable” rules risk causing an outbreak.

“I think it’s completely an ill-laid out plan,” Mayo said. “Something has to be done to fix it, to improve it, or we’re really going to have a serious problem in the fall.”

She said the university should consider pooled testing, which can test more people cost-effectively, but whose efficacy remains in its infancy when it comes to COVID-19.

“The university considered numerous options,” Owczarski said. “If or as guidance evolves or circumstances related to the pandemic change, Virginia Tech (as it has done) will consider or reconsider other options.”

Containing the spread

Testing alone is not a panacea.

“A person can become infected after the test has been taken,” the health department’s guide to colleges notes. “The test results should not be seen as implying that someone who tested negative on the date of the test will continue to not pose a risk to the campus community.”

Wearing masks, physical distancing and frequent hand-washing will be critical.

Laura Hungerford, head of the Department of Population Health Sciences at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, said while estimates from the Centers for Disease Control estimate 40% to 60% of spread is asymptomatic, that means 40% to 60% of spread is symptomatic.

“So, if one person infects 2 others, this would mean that one of them, on average, would show signs and we would find them after just one transmission cycle,” Hungerford said in an email.

“This is why health districts strongly emphasize contact tracing. When we find the case that shows signs — it should lead us to find and test others to determine who gave the infection to them and then trace where the disease may be spreading.”

Aris Spanos, a professor of economics at Tech, also expressed concern about the potential for COVID-19 to spread on campus by those without symptoms.

“I predicted that we’re going to rush the opening and get ourselves in trouble, and that’s exactly what happened,” Spanos said about recent nationwide case trends, noting that Virginia, and Tech itself, do not exist in a vacuum.

“I expect in a group of 15,000, we will have, let’s say, at least 100 who will show absolutely no symptoms,” he said. “And that is enough to start a real problem within a couple of weeks.”

Parker, the health department spokesman, did not respond to a direct question about how many contact tracers the New River Health District has or hopes to have by September. He said, “We are currently handling our caseload and have a plan for surge, as we do expect an increase in cases as the students return and our population increases.”

If one is worried about transmission, Hungerford said, “then the best thing we can do is to adopt practices that stop spread — wearing masks, physical distancing, and using good hygiene — which have been shown to inhibit spread even when there are infected people among us.”

That’s why masks are required on campuses, faculty will teach behind shields, and most classroom occupancy is reduced by about 75% and capped at 49 students.

Blacksburg Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith said the town works closely with Tech, and she doesn’t share her Charlottesville counterpart’s assessment that UVa’s opening will be “a recipe for disaster.” In her view, testing is the “least effective part of staying safe,” and that “none of that is as important as practices we can put into play,” such as physical distancing and wearing masks.

“The bugaboo, really the big concern, is that there are going to be out-of-control parties,” Hager-Smith said.

Dr. Noelle Bissell, director of the New River Health District, said that residents shouldn’t hold students to a higher standard.

“The students are not bringing in COVID. It’s here,” she said Thursday at an economic development conference. “It’s all over the New River Valley. … There’s no bad place. There’s bad behavior. It’s not where you go, it’s what you do.”

Williams, the rising Tech senior, expects he won’t travel over fall break or engage in as much activities as usual.

“We have this kind of imaginary vision of what college was like before the pandemic,” he said. “A lot of things that make college fun, I think, like concerts that we have, and social gatherings that would be organized at the beginning of the semester, and hanging out with friends, are just not going to happen.”

And he’s left with his own unanswered questions: Will football happen? Will he work his campus dining job? How will buses deal with physical distancing?

“I don’t think anybody knows what’s really going to happen,” he said. “Everything changes, every single day.”

John Lewis, lion of civil rights and Congress, dies at 80

ATLANTA — John Lewis, a lion of the civil rights movement whose bloody beating by Alabama state troopers in 1965 helped galvanize opposition to racial segregation, and who went on to a long and celebrated career in Congress, has died. He was 80.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed Lewis’ passing late Friday night, calling him “one of the greatest heroes of American history.”

“All of us were humbled to call Congressman Lewis a colleague, and are heartbroken by his passing,” Pelosi said. “May his memory be an inspiration that moves us all to, in the face of injustice, make ‘good trouble, necessary trouble.’ ”

The condolences for Lewis were bipartisan. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Lewis was “a pioneering civil rights leader who put his life on the line to fight racism, promote equal rights, and bring our nation into greater alignment with its founding principles. ”

Lewis’ announcement in late December 2019 that he had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer — “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now,” he said — inspired tributes from both sides of the aisle, and an unstated accord that the likely passing of this Atlanta Democrat would represent the end of an era.

The announcement of his death came just hours after the passing of the Rev. C.T. Vivian, another civil rights leader who died early Friday at 95.

Lewis was the youngest and last survivor of the Big Six civil rights activists, a group led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that had the greatest impact on the movement. He was best known for leading some 600 protesters in the Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

At age 25 — walking at the head of the march with his hands tucked in the pockets of his tan overcoat — Lewis was knocked to the ground and beaten by police. His skull was fractured, and nationally televised images of the brutality forced the country’s attention on racial oppression in the South.

Within days, King led more marches in the state, and President Lyndon Johnson soon was pressing Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. The bill became law later that year, removing barriers that had barred Blacks from voting.

“He loved this country so much that he risked his life and its blood so that it might live up to its promise,” President Barack Obama said after Lewis’ death. “Early on, he embraced the principles of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience as the means to bring about real change in this country.”

Lewis joined King and four other civil rights leaders in organizing the 1963 March on Washington. He spoke to the vast crowd just before King delivered his epochal “I Have a Dream” speech.

A 23-year-old firebrand, Lewis toned down his intended remarks at the insistence of others, dropping a reference to a “scorched earth” march through the South and scaling back criticisms of President John Kennedy. It was a potent speech nonetheless, in which he vowed: “By the forces of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in an image of God and democracy.”

It was almost immediately, and forever, overshadowed by the words of King, the man who had inspired him to activism.

Lewis was born on Feb. 21, 1940, outside the town of Troy, in Pike County, Alabama. He grew up on his family’s farm and attended segregated public schools.

As a boy, he wanted to be a minister, and practiced his oratory on the family chickens. Denied a library card because of the color of his skin, he became an avid reader, and could cite obscure historical dates and details even in his later years. He was a teenager when he first heard King preaching on the radio. They met when Lewis was seeking support to become the first Black student at Alabama’s segregated Troy State University.

He ultimately attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He began organizing sit-in demonstrations at whites-only lunch counters and volunteering as a Freedom Rider, enduring beatings and arrests while traveling around the South to challenge segregation.

Lewis helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was named its chairman in 1963, making him one of the Big Six at a tender age. The others, in addition to King, were Whitney Young of the National Urban League; A. Philip Randolph of the Negro American Labor Council; James L. Farmer Jr., of the Congress of Racial Equality; and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP. All six met at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York to plan and announce the March on Washington.

The huge demonstration galvanized the movement, but success didn’t come quickly. After extensive training in nonviolent protest, Lewis and the Rev. Hosea Williams led demonstrators on a planned march of more than 50 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, on March 7, 1965. A phalanx of police blocked their exit from the Selma bridge.

Authorities shoved, then swung their truncheons, fired tear gas and charged on horseback, sending many to the hospital and horrifying much of the nation. King returned with thousands, completing the march to Montgomery before the end of the month.

Lewis turned to politics in 1981, when he was elected to the Atlanta City Council.

He won his seat in Congress in 1986 and spent much of his career in the minority.

After Democrats won control of the House in 2006, Lewis became his party’s senior deputy whip, a behind-the-scenes leadership post in which he helped keep the party unified.

In an early setback for Barack Obama’s 2008 Democratic primary campaign, Lewis endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton for the nomination. Lewis switched when it became clear Obama had overwhelming Black support. Obama later honored Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and they marched hand in hand in Selma on the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday attack.

President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday praised Lewis as a “giant” who became “the conscience of the nation.”

Lewis also worked for 15 years to gain approval for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Humble and unfailingly friendly, Lewis was revered on Capitol Hill — but as one of the most liberal members of Congress, he often lost policy battles, from his effort to stop the Iraq War to his defense of young immigrants.

He met bipartisan success in Congress in 2006 when he led efforts to renew the Voting Rights Act, but the Supreme Court later invalidated much of the law, and it became once again what it was in his youth, a work in progress. Later, when the presidency of Donald Trump challenged his civil rights legacy, Lewis made no effort to hide his pain.

Lewis refused to attend Trump’s inauguration, saying he didn’t consider him a “legitimate president” because Russians had conspired to get him elected. When Trump later complained about immigrants from “s---hole countries,” Lewis declared, “I think he is a racist ... we have to try to stand up and speak up and not try to sweep it under the rug.”

Lewis said he’d been arrested 40 times in the 1960s, five more as a congressman. At 78, he told a rally he’d do it again to help reunite immigrant families separated by the Trump administration.

“There cannot be any peace in America until these young children are returned to their parents and set all of our people free,” Lewis said in June


Farmers cultivate new business models as the pandemic forces them to adapt

When the schools shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic, Jerry Conner began to worry about the fate of his farm.

Four Oaks Farms, a hydroponic operation in Wirtz, counted Franklin County Public Schools and Roanoke College among its customers. And the farmers markets where Conner also sells his lettuce and greens were scrambling to adapt. He estimated those two avenues make up about 80% of the farm’s sales.

“We really thought that was the end, we weren’t going to make it,” Conner said. “There’s not a large margin in farming. We didn’t know what we were going to do.”

Initially, he said, there was a considerable amount of waste at Four Oaks Farms. But then, something shifted.

People became more interested in buying local food, perhaps because of empty shelves at the big box stores or a desire to keep their dollars in the region.

Four Oaks already had an online ordering system, and Conner said it took off. Then LEAP, which runs the West End and Grandin farmers markets in Roanoke, developed one of its own, offering another place for Conner to sell his lettuce and greens.

“I think most local farmers are going to tell you that they’re thankful in a way because of the new connections that have been made between the community and the local agriculture,” Conner said.

That’s not to say it’s been easy or inexpensive — Conner said he had to spend a “pile of money,” not to mention time, individually bagging every item in keeping with “low-touch” or “no-touch” best practices.

Agriculture is one of countless industries that has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many farmers who can sell directly to consumers are weathering the pandemic well, though it often required a significant reworking of their business model.

But others, like beef cattle and dairy farmers, have struggled because of issues on the processing side.

Scott Sink, vice president of Virginia Farm Bureau who farms in Franklin and Montgomery counties, has experienced both.

His produce stand has seen increased demand, but as a beef cattle producer, Sink has observed market uncertainty and disruptions to the supply chain. He also sells hay and said some dairy customers are buying far less than they usually would, or just doing without.

Sink said the pandemic has created uncertainty for everyone agriculture touches.

“You’ve got the producer, you’ve got the processor and you’ve got the consumer,” he said. “Usually you’ll have different blips always that happen. But this is something right now that’s impacting all three groups.”

Logistics breakdown

Early on in the pandemic, shoppers couldn’t always find what they needed in grocery stores, something Sink said was particularly frustrating for farmers to see.

“We’re producing and not getting the price we should be, but then at the upper end, they’re not getting the product as well,” he said.

Even farmers who have diversified to protect themselves are likely hurting given how many sectors are depressed, Sink said. Those who have managed to maintain their business by selling directly to consumers are still enduring a difficult growing season.

Sink said he’s had to replant some things three or four times because it was so wet and cool in the spring, and now his crops are enduring a hot, dry spell.

Kevin Marshall, a beef cattle farmer in Botetourt County, said prices plummeted, which might come as a surprise given the lack of beef available at grocery stores at times during the pandemic.

The problem, he said, was that meatpackers across the country were shut down, meaning cattle couldn’t be sold, or were sold but couldn’t be slaughtered.

“You hold on to them until the prices do come up,” Marshall said. “But then it gets to a point you’ve got to pay bills, you’ve got to get rid of them. You need money.”

Delaying the sale of cattle will drive up input costs for the farmer — he has to keep feeding and caring for the animals. Even so, that’s what Marshall did earlier this spring.

“When the shelves cleaned out in the stores, I thought for sure they [prices] were going up,” he said. “But they just dropped and they stayed.”

Some farmers, like those selling produce at local markets, can set their own prices, Marshall said. But beef cattle farmers are not so lucky; they have to take what they can get.

“The demand is there, and the supply chain was really screwed up by this COVID,” he said. “This is even confusing to me. It’s kind of like a funnel. It just backed up.”

Even as the supply chain stabilizes, consumers may not choose beef. When people experience financial hardship, Marshall said, they’ll cross beef off their shopping lists in favor of cheaper proteins, like chicken. He expects that trend to continue with high unemployment.

“It’s just like a drought or anything else,” he said. “You’ve just always got to have plan A, B, C and D. When those things arise, you just plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

Milk woes

Dairy farmers have been battling low milk prices for several years, and COVID-19 offered no reprieve.

“Milk prices kind of hit an all-time low,” said Courtney Henderson, whose family owns Cave Hill Dairy in Botetourt County.

Although there was a milk shortage in grocery stores as people stocked their refrigerators and shelves with the essentials, Henderson said, milk was not actually in short supply. She said processors couldn’t meet demand.

While major milk consumers like schools were shuttered, the dairy processors that serve them are designed specifically to package milk into small cartons, rather than the gallon jugs found at the grocery store. Converting the equipment to meet needs elsewhere would be too costly, she said.

Henderson said some farms, though not her family’s, had to dump their milk. She knows their pain, having been forced to dump milk in the past because of a refrigerator malfunction.

“It’s very heartbreaking watching everything that you spent all day doing go down the drain just like it never happened at all,” Henderson said.

Henderson said government assistance programs have helped Cave Hill Dairy through the pandemic, along with insurance programs the farm participates in.

Before the coronavirus, Henderson said, the sixth-generation dairy farm was in a decent financial situation. There was hope that 2020 would be a good year for the industry.

Small farmers adapt

Michael Wallace, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said struggling producers are starting to see some relief as restaurants reopen and the agriculture supply chain normalizes.

Farmers markets were forced to adapt quickly. Rather than browsing the stalls on a lazy weekend morning, customers instead placed pre-orders online. Although that transition required great effort, Wallace said, many producers liked knowing in advance how many orders they’d need to fulfill on a given day or what there’s particular demand for.

Farmers who already had the infrastructure in place to sell directly to consumers were at an advantage, but Wallace said others pivoted quickly, setting up websites and using social media to get the word out about their products and how to purchase them.

“I think the farmers’ ability to really embrace that direct-to-customer relationship really kind of helped them weather the storm,” Wallace said.

While Susanna Thornton of Thornfield Farm in Botetourt County saw her wholesale business serving restaurants and catering companies evaporate this season, the farm share program has grown significantly.

The program is essentially a membership, where customers pay a fee upfront and receive produce all season long. Thornfield’s farm share has a waitlist, Thornton said, even after allowing in 50% more people this year.

Increased demand from individual shoppers, whether through farmers markets, the Thornfield website or the farm share program, has helped to make up for losses elsewhere.

“The individual sales demand has been really high,” Thornton said. “Even though we had to kind of redraw the business model in terms of our retail sales, the demand was there, so it was just a question of how we could get the food out there safely.”

When the pandemic hit, Thornton set up a new website to allow for online ordering by customers who were not part of the farm share program. Keeping track of the various ordering systems while making sure customer orders are fulfilled when and where they want has been challenging.

“It’s just been kind of a juggling act to figure out how to redo what we used to always do,” Thornton said.

Changes at home

Thornton said she believes more people are seeking local food for several reasons.

“I think that the pandemic really just kind of has helped awaken people to the importance of their food and the food source,” she said. “There’s also been breakdowns in the supply chain at the national level, and we don’t have that same problem as a local producer.

“Also, people have more time and they’re cooking more and they’re at home more, or at least they’re allocating their time differently.”

Despite the successes, Thornton looks forward to a return to normalcy. She’s missed the community at the farmers markets, along with the farm dinners and tours that usually accompany the farm share program.

In addition, Thornton had hoped to expand the flower side of the business this year, which became difficult when weddings and events were canceled.

Mark Woods said he can’t say that his Woods Farms in Franklin County, which offers a variety of produce such as peaches and tomatoes, was negatively affected by COVID-19.

“Business has been pretty good because people are going back to their local farm stand, farm market and buying their product instead of going to Kroger or Food Lion or Walmart because they don’t know where it’s coming from and 100 people ain’t touching that same tomato,” he said.

Woods said he’s seen some new faces this year. People are getting back to basics, he said, with some even asking about canning.

But he was well-positioned for this time, given that he primarily serves individuals. Though some of the farmers markets he sells at opened late this year, Woods still had his farm stand in Boones Mill. He used social media to get the word out to people who might ordinarily visit him at a farmers market.

Woods said he appreciates the support from customers who are keeping their dollars local.

“I hope that people will still come after it’s all said and done,” he said. “I feel that they will. You’re going to lose some. But I feel that we will hopefully keep them coming.”

Photos: Scenes from Four Oaks Farms