Amid rising COVID-19 cases, Roanoke College has become the first campus in the region to decide to hold classes almost exclusively online for the rest of the semester.
Classes will largely remain online for the fall, though faculty may offer in-person classes to students on campus or who commute, the private college in Salem announced Friday, one week before hundreds more students move to campus.
Students have the option to stay at home, return to campus, or return home if they’ve already moved in, with room and board costs prorated.
While other schools, such as Virginia Tech and Radford University, have likewise seen cases double in recent weeks, they have expressed confidence they will be able to continue in-person instruction as planned.
The New River Valley has seen a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, which public health officials say they expected as hundreds of college students returned to the region.
Virginia Tech on Friday reported 238 new positive cases since Sunday, for a total of 416 since Aug. 9. Radford University said Friday that about 74% of its campus quarantine space was full. And with more targeted testing of symptomatic students, the region on Friday reported the second-highest positivity rate averaged for the last seven days, at 15.5%, among Virginia’s 35 health districts, state data shows.
Roanoke College, with about 2,000 students, reported 23 new cases since Aug. 28 between students and employees, almost doubling its total number of cases. Forty-eight cases have been reported since mid-August.
The decision to remain predominantly online came after several revisions to the college’s reopening plan.
The original plan called for students to return two weeks early and finish in-person classes before Thanksgiving. In early August, the college announced a phased move-in plan and an all-virtual start until Labor Day, when most classes would transition to in-person or hybrid.
Last week, after a total of 15 students tested positive and 40 students were quarantined, President Michael Maxey pushed back remaining move-in dates until the weekend of Sept. 11 and announced that classes would remain online until Sept. 14 in order to better manage testing and care. He said at the time that the college would make a final decision this week about class format for the remainder of the semester.
“Offering online classes with a choice of living in-residence is also a way to help students who need to be on campus and provide the choice for others who feel more comfortable remaining online,” he wrote in an email Friday announcing the newest changes. “Fortunately, our size enables us to be a bit nimble during this time, and we are committed to a personalized approach to education for our students.”
Maxey reported that 90 students are now quarantined of the 800 who have returned to campus.
Roanoke College has a total of 70 isolation spaces between two residence halls, according to spokesperson Teresa Gereaux. One hall holds 50 students and will be at 50% capacity when several students move out of isolation Saturday, she said. The second hall has an additional 20 spaces. Quarantined students remain in their dorm room, Gereaux said.
Before Tech reported 238 new cases, President Tim Sands on Thursday said the public should expect to see “probably on the order of a few hundred new cases” logged for the campus this week. The university’s dashboard, which does not specify whether cases belong to students or employees, will start providing daily updates next week.
Sands and Dr. Noelle Bissell, director of the New River Health District, cautioned that daily case numbers are not necessarily the best reflection of the pandemic’s current hold on the community.
Other public health metrics, such as local hospital capacity and community transmission, are critical, Sands said. The university’s reopening plan also notes that criteria that would cause Tech to consider scaling back operations include “50 percent or less available isolation capacity.”
As of Friday, 84 students were in campus isolation, out of 172 available rooms, according to Mark Owczarski, a Tech spokesman. That amounts to 51% of room space available. However, the rooms collectively contain about 425 beds.
Owczarski said in an email Friday that isolation capacity metrics are one of “many important data points in future decision making.” He said multiple data points, “combined with conversations and discussions within the university and with our community partners leads us to decisions.”
Radford University had 40 students in designated quarantine housing, which can hold 54 students, according to Caitlyn Scaggs, a university spokeswoman.
“The University could secure additional isolation/quarantine housing if that became necessary,” she said in an email. “However, the Virginia Department of Health stated on Tuesday that we have reached a plateau and are declining in positive cases, which is supported by our Student Health Center data. As such, we remain confident in our ability to meet the needs of impacted individuals.”
Radford’s COVID-19 dashboard shows an 11.14% positivity rate out of 2,629 tests conducted over the week ending Tuesday. State data for the city has declined since a daily peak of 68 cases reported Tuesday.
Scaggs declined Friday to provide current figures, and said the university’s dashboard would be updated next Tuesday.
Roanoke College’s cumulative positivity rate for students and staff hovers around 4.8%, according to data provided by the college. The positivity rate this week was 41.8%, but far fewer tests were administered than in past weeks. Gereaux said tests are now only being administered to students experiencing symptoms after initially testing all arriving students. Students who return later this month will also be tested, she said.
Salem’s city and school leaders on Thursday voiced confidence in Roanoke College’s ability to keep the community safe. Salem Police Chief Mike Crawley said the city and college are collectively monitoring the virus “and the possible ways it could spread on and off campus.”
Salem City Schools Superintendent Alan Seibert said he has “full faith that President Maxey and his team will do the appropriate things to keep us informed and the community safe.”
“Dr. Molly O’Dell recently told me and other superintendents that going back to school or college doesn’t spread the virus. It is human behavior and making poor choices that spread it,” Seibert said. O’Dell is the point person for COVID-19 information in the Roanoke and Alleghany Health Districts.
Maxey encouraged students to make smart choices and reminded students to quarantine before returning to campus.
“The case numbers will need to remain manageable in order for us to stay in-residence,” he wrote.
Two weeks ago, the college announced it removed six students for violating the student conduct code after three positive tests that may have been related to an off-campus party.
James Madison University in Harrisonburg announced Tuesday that it planned to switch to virtual classes, the first Virginia school to make such an announcement, after reporting more than 500 active student cases less than a week after in-person classes began.
University officials asked students to leave by Sept. 7, though they also hinted at the possibility of returning to in-person instruction in October.
Hollins University reported no new cases this week as classes started. One positive case was reported when arriving students were tested. A total of 740 tests have been administered, according to the private school’s data.
Ferrum College reported two new cases this week, according to the private college’s dashboard. Three students are in precautionary isolation. The college has reported a cumulative total of five cases.
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