William & Mary’s only virologist has serious concerns about the college’s reopening plans amid the coronavirus

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(WYDaily file/Courtesy of W&M News)
(WYDaily file/Courtesy of W&M News)

William & Mary did not include its only virologist in discussions regarding reopening the college following closure of in-person classes due to the coronavirus.

Kurt Williamson, a virologist in W&M’s Biology department, penned an open letter to college President Katherine Rowe.

In it he expressed his “serious concern” regarding the potential reopening of the school to in-person instruction.

“I am aware that several teams have been assigned to develop work plans for the coming academic year and that these work plans are likely to allow for a number of different options, including online instruction and so-called hybrid approaches…I might ask why the College has not included its only virologist as part of those teams , but I am likely raising this point far too late,” Williamson wrote in part in the letter.

William & Mary shutdown earlier in the spring and sent students home due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many aspects of university life went virtual, from classes to club meetings. 

The college recently announced plans — “Path Forward” — to reopen in the fall. Officials said they are planning to open early for an in-person semester and would provide a new schedule to create flexibility.

Besides Williamson, W&M’s Workers’ Union also expressed concerns about the plan.

James Rick, financial secretary for the William & Mary Workers’ Union and a graduate worker in the history department, said the union had also not been involved in discussions regarding reopening.

“I think part of the reason administration might not have consulted faculty or dealt with other works is because they might’ve been afraid of what they would say,” Rick said. “Some of it is that the admin wants to be the ones making decisions and dealing with us can throw a wrinkle into their decisions.”

Rick said part of the issue is the plan doesn’t take staff and faculty concerns into account. Workers will be asked to return to campus to perform their jobs and potentially putting their health at risk.

“For people who had to come on campus, they’re being asked to do the exact opposite sometimes of what the scientific experts and authorities are telling us to do,” Rick said. “And it’s for the sake of our employment, something we don’t necessarily have control over. People have to stay employed but they’re weighing that against keeping yourself healthy.”

Williamson wrote in the letter that he had to sign a waiver in order to access his lab over the summer. There were certain “harsh realities” stated in the waiver, such as understanding the virus could lead to lasting deficits or death.

“These risks are not going to magically diminish when the fall term ends,” Williamson wrote. “Indeed, with a huge explosion of students and support staff on campus, risk of infection will increase exponentially.”

The union also penned a letter to university administration on June 18, stating the college had not provided a clear policy to protect high risk workers besides asking the employees to consult their supervisors.

The letter also demands the college take certain actions such as providing a choice for employees to work remotely, providing paid leave for employees whose jobs cannot be done remotely, and providing hazard pay for workers on campus to compensate for their risk of exposure.

A full list of the union’s demands can be found online.

Rick said the union has not yet received a response from the administration.

Some are asking the college to consider an online-only instructional model at the school.

Both Williamson and Rick acknowledged that if the school was to go entirely online, it would pose certain financial challenges. Rick said the union is aware of those concerns and is trying to get worker hazard pay for those who would have to go on campus.

But if the school was to go online, the financial impacts could potentially create furloughs or layoffs.

“Part of our thoughts about it is that we [faculty and staff] haven’t been particularly well-informed about what the real financial problems are from William & Mary,” Rick said. “They haven’t told us who would be cut first…but we’re still asked to take a risk with the pandemic.” 

Williamson’s letter also addressed those financial concerns, acknowledging the university needs to make money to operate. 

“The College of William & Mary is home to some of the smartest, most creative people in this nation,” Williamson wrote. “We can find ways to weather the upcoming economic hardships; we cannot replace the health and life of anyone who loses it to this virus.”

Williamson also expressed concern about the health of the students. He said even with measures such as Plexiglas barriers, there still isn’t a way to entirely protect students once they’re on campus.

And for students with medical conditions, such as asthma or diabetes, risks of coronavirus health complications are even more significant.

“I think the big concern is that the ‘Path Forward,’ as laid out, is sort of just considering what administration wants before what other parts of the school want,” Rick said. 

Williamson was not immediately available for comment. Read his letter here.

WYDaily reached out to Cindy Brauer, executive assistant to Rowe, but she was not immediately available. The number listed for Brauer was the same number listed for Rowe.

Suzanne Clavet, spokeswoman for the university, was also not immediately available for comment so WYDaily sent her an email with a deadline and also contacted the following people in the media relations department: Joe McClain, David Williard, Claudette Brooks, Erin Zagursky, Cortney Will, Adrienne Berard, Jennifer Williams and Nathan Warters.

WYDaily also reached out to Henry R. Broaddus and Brian Whitson in the public affairs office as well as the office of the Vice President of Student Affairs.

All the numbers rang and went to voicemail. Warters’ voicemail box did not list his name but included a voicemail message from Clavet saying another person retired recently ––not Warters––and to call her on her office line.

McClain picked up on the second call said he was in a Zoom meeting and would call back shortly. McClain told WYDaily the staff was working remotely and asked how the WYDaily attempted to contact Clavet. McClain said if the reporter was having a hard time, he would too, adding he cannot stick his head in the door like he would otherwise.

He recommended WYDaily contact Clavet on her cellphone, but he declined to give the number, citing university policy.

Editor’s note: Clavet sent an email regarding our inquiry after the story was published. (This story was updated at 3:57 p.m., June 26, 2020)

Clavet said Rowe, who was out of town Friday, was in touch with Williamson last week in response to his letter.

“She thanked him for expressing his concerns and let him know that his input as a virologist is welcomed and encouraged,” Clavet wrote in the email. “Professor Williamson raised good questions which the university will be addressing more fully in the coming weeks through the work of the Plan Ahead teams and in consultation with state and local health officials.”

Clavet said the university’s Plan Ahead teams are developing W&M’s COVID-19 response, and the work includes two epidemiologists.

W&M’s COVID Response Team also sent an update to the campus community Friday afternoon.

The university’s Path Forward: Fall 2020 website also contains up to date information, Clavet noted.

“As complex and evolving a situation as it is, our decisions and plans for the fall are being made in a phased way so that we can utilize the most current information possible in that process,” Clavet wrote.

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