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Virginia Tech's Sands defends in-person teaching as start of classes nears

Virginia Tech's Sands defends in-person teaching as start of classes nears

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Virginia Tech President Tim Sands continues to discuss the university’s planning to open for the fall semester.

Virginia Tech President Tim Sands issued a defense Sunday of the university’s plans to hold in-person classes starting in two weeks but hedged, “we will move to remote operation if public health considerations dictate.”

The president’s statement comes as Blacksburg prepares to crack down on student parties, after the city of Radford banned large gatherings to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Tech students will begin moving into campus dorms on Friday, while Radford University students in Radford — which has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases within the last seven days — started moving in last weekend.

“As we approach the start of the fall semester, I know many of you have concerns related to our decision to start the fall in a residential model, with some of our teaching and learning conducted in an in-person format,” Sands wrote. “One question I’ve heard from numerous members of our community: Wouldn’t it be safer to start the semester without residential students and with all instruction offered only online, similar to what some other Virginia colleges and universities have recently announced?”

Schools such as Hampton University, which is now fully online, and institutions such as the University of Virginia and Virginia State University, have delayed the start of in-person classes.

But the answer, largely, is no, the president said.

“Our biggest risks are likely to result from behaviors that individuals can control, such as off-campus gatherings and travel to and from hot spots,” Sands said. “We will be burdened with those risks whether we are remote or not because many of our students, as well as staff and faculty, are already living in our community, and they will continue to do so if we are forced into remote operation.”

The university estimates 9,100 students will live in university housing this fall, roughly 30% of the total student population. Many others, in particular graduate students, live off campus in the Blacksburg area.

While students are returning to campus, most courses will be online. About 62% of undergraduate courses will be virtual, with 32% a mix of in-person and online and 6% face-to-face. About 60% of graduate courses will be online, with 29% hybrid and 11% in-person.

Sands also said Tech would lose money if it cancels its residential fall semester.

“And while financial considerations will not override health considerations in our decision-making, they would be consequential for Virginia Tech and for our community,” the president wrote.

The university estimates it would lose as much as $210 million if all classes went online.

“I’m often asked why we can’t just use our endowment or cash reserves to ride out a remote fall,” he said.

Sands noted that an online fall “would undoubtedly result in loss of employment for many of our valued employees,” since policies restrict Tech’s endowment and state laws limit fund transfers across different university departments.

“Executive salary reductions, furloughs, and other measures would not be sufficient to cover the gap,” he wrote. “Besides the obvious hardship that would befall those employees and the rippling impacts on our communities, our ability to support quality instruction and our research enterprise would be impacted.”

Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski said in an email Monday that under current circumstances, the university is not planning any salary reductions or furloughs. The university’s governing board in June gave Sands the power to make such cuts if needed to balance the budget.

No particular feedback or event prompted the issuance of Sands’ statement, according to Owczarski, who noted Sands has frequently spoken to the community through town halls and written messages.

“He has been highly engaged with the community during his seven years as president and frequently shares what is on his mind,” Owczarski wrote.

In his conclusion, Sands said, “Weighing all of these considerations, we must make every effort to provide students and faculty the choice to participate in the residential campus model, provided we can effectively mitigate the risks of COVID-19. That said, we will move to remote operation if public health considerations dictate.”

Those considerations, outlined in Tech’s reopening plan to the state, include infection rates among Virginia Tech students and employees; local hospital capacity; regional COVID-19 case trends; and reduced availability of isolation and quarantine space, among other factors.

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