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Viral photo and football promos: Virginia Tech grapples with gatherings during COVID-19 era

Viral photo and football promos: Virginia Tech grapples with gatherings during COVID-19 era

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An administrator said a crowded academic classroom created “anxiety” among students.

Virginia Tech is grappling with how to control large gatherings that could hasten the spread of COVID-19 during the first week of classes.

An engineering professor was removed from teaching a class after a photo of an overfilled classroom, with some students sitting on the floor, went viral. A Tech website on Thursday continued to advertise tailgate packages with the smallest tent hosting up to 20 guests and the largest up to 60 people. And two days after imposing a 15-person limit to student parties, the university told employees that they, too, should abide by the same rules for work-related gatherings.

“It is imperative that the spread of COVID-19 be minimized by maintaining good public health practices such as maintaining physical distancing, wearing face coverings, and washing hands frequently,” Provost Cyril Clarke and Chief Business Officer Dwayne Pinkney wrote in a message to employees on Tuesday. “Unfortunately, there have been several instances over the past few days when members of our community have gathered in numbers that make it impossible to maintain physical distancing. In some cases, this has happened without these individuals wearing face coverings.”

Mark Owczarski, a university spokesman, said Clarke and Pinkney were referring to “many anecdotal stories” that people are sharing about gatherings.

At a board of visitors meeting Tuesday, Tamarah Smith, Tech’s staff representative to the board, said students have been observed partying in numbers that could put people at risk.

“It’s not just the students that need to take this seriously, we know that. It’s everyone,” she told the board. “Both faculty and staff have been observed on campus without a mask.”

So far, Tech has reported relatively low percentages of positive COVID-19 tests among students and employees: 21 out of 9,041 tests. Roughly 1,500 undergraduate courses being held face to face or by a mix of in-person and online instruction, have begun mostly without hitches.

But one photo of a packed classroom that swiftly spread across social media has upended Tech’s picture of careful planning and caused consternation among university officials.

“Considering the high rate of infection for COVID-19, it only takes a few of these instances potentially to place the entire community at risk,” Clarke and Pinkney said, speaking generally about large gatherings.

Keith Thompson, associate dean for academic affairs, told faculty and staff in the College of Engineering (COE) in an email just after 8 p.m. Monday that administrators were investigating the packed classroom.

“Unfortunately I must address an incident that occurred earlier today and is currently making the rounds on Twitter and Reddit,” Thompson wrote in the email, a copy of which The Roanoke Times obtained.

“A COE faculty member did not follow instructions that had repeatedly been provided regarding management of a hybrid course, specifically directions on splitting the course enrollment into smaller groups in order to stay within the adjusted seating limit of the classroom assigned for the class. 40 to 50 students were brought into a room that had been readjusted for a maximum capacity of 26. Excess students sat on the floor in the back of the classroom. Photographic evidence makes it clear that physical distancing requirements were not maintained.”

Thompson said the incident “created anxiety in the students and placed their health at risk.”

“It has undermined the efforts of many employees to set a standard for behavior in Fall 2020 that will allow this campus to remain safe and to remain open through Thanksgiving,” Thompson wrote. “This is not acceptable.”

Thompson ended his message thanking faculty and staff, noting that he believed the vast majority of them were complying with public health guidelines.

Thompson referred a reporter to Owczarski.

Owczarski said a new faculty member would be taking over the course for the rest of the semester, and that the hybrid course would move fully online. He declined to say whether the professor had been disciplined, saying he could not comment on personnel matters.

Because of the risk of copyright infringement, The Roanoke Times cannot republish photographs without the explicit permission of their authors. A Reddit account that initially published the photo did not respond to multiple messages this week.

President Tim Sands on Thursday reiterated his call for community members to work together to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“Our community has done a remarkable job so far, and now it’s up to each one of us to keep our campus open,” he wrote in a statement.

After the university announced student gatherings should be limited to 15 people, some noted the irony of Tech’s football webpage advertising tents and tailgate amenities that could host numbers in excess of the limit. Some joked whether buying such a package could put them at risk of suspension — disciplinary actions Tech has taken against more than seven students for violating public health guidelines.

Universities nationwide are under immense pressure to host athletic events, which bring millions of dollars to the schools and their local communities.

“Sometimes it goes underestimated, the value that they bring, not only to the student -athlete experience to the student undergraduate experience, and certainly to the economy of Southwest Virginia,” Charlie Phlegar, vice president for advancement, told members of the board of visitors on Monday during an update on fundraising. “We need football. We need a strong athletic program.”

Owczarski said the university and the town of Blacksburg are working together to develop a plan for tailgating. He did not directly address the promotional link to the tailgate package, but noted the rescheduled game with North Carolina State University as an example of the quickly changing landscape.

“Extraordinarily dynamic times we are navigating,” he wrote.

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