Reopening amid the coronavirus: W&M students start trickling into Williamsburg as other universities deal with COVID outbreaks

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Residents and family members wore masks and followed physical distancing protocols when moving into residence halls Aug. 12-14. (WYDaily/Jim Agnew, W&M News)
Residents and family members wore masks and followed physical distancing protocols when moving into residence halls Aug. 12-14. (WYDaily/Jim Agnew, W&M News)

William & Mary started the first few weeks of the fall semester remotely but allowed students to arrive on campus this month through Labor Day weekend before starting classes in person.

Indeed the university have tested its students for the coronavirus prior to arriving on campus, but positive cases have spread throughout colleges across the country like UNC Chapel Hill in North Carolina and most recently, Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, making some residents in Williamsburg a little uneasy.

On Sunday VCU reported 58 students and 12 employees tested positive for the virus, an increase from earlier last week when the university had 25 students 11 positive coronavirus cases.

The university reopened Monday and so far, 39 residential students are in isolation on campus and 57 residential students are quarantining on campus.

“VCU’s reopening plans were formed in coordination with state health officials,” according to The Associated Press. “It called for all residential students and 2% of nonresidential students to be tested for COVID-19 prior to their return to campus.”

So how is William & Mary and the surrounding community going to deal with the influx of college students during a pandemic?

Would the college close immediately if there was a similar outbreak of cases like UNC Chapel Hill?

William & Mary

On Aug. 18, William & Mary announced several students and staff had tested positive for the virus just five days after the Williamsburg City Council passed Healthy Together: A Community Commitment resolution with the university, a pact to slow the spread of the virus.

“We are going to share those numbers, but right now, they are so low, under 10 in the respective categories for students and employees, that providing them would compromise the privacy of those individuals who tested positive,” W&M spokeswoman Erin Zagursky wrote in an email Aug. 18, noting the individuals tested positive before coming to campus. “This is a common practice by W&M’s Office of Institutional Research to protect anonymity.”

Zagurksy said those who tested positive are required to stay home until they test negative and there are “no known positive cases in quarantine on campus right now.”

WYDaily asked Zagurksy and W&M spokeswoman Suzanne Clavet why the university decided to have in person classes for the fall semester, if the university used contact tracing to see if the students, faculty and staff members who tested positive for the virus had interacted with other members of the college community and how the university was going to make sure students wear face coverings and practice social distancing.

Zagurksy referred WYDaily to a Aug. 18 “Staying Healthy Together” update from W&M President Katherine Rowe and a July 31 statement, also from Rowe, about the university’s phased return to campus plan for the fall semester.

The Aug. 18 statement announced a new COVID-19 dashboard and noted the university would start “prevalence testing,” testing 5 percent of the student population and 2 percent of the employees that week.

Two days later, W&M Dean of Students Marjorie Thomas announced a COVID Zero Tolerance Policy, banning large groups of more than 10 people. The policy asked the W&M community to report people who violate the “Healthy Together” commitment and start “Party Patrols” to make sure students start wearing masks and practice social distancing.

WYDaily asked Kenton Towner, W&M’s emergency management coordinator, what the university plans to do if they are unable to contain a coronavirus outbreak on campus at Richmond Hall, the designated building for positive cases, and if the university would close immediately if there was a similar situation like UNC Chapel Hill.

He referred WYDaily to the university’s communications department for comment.

City’s response

“As a strategic partner of the university, we fully support the decisions being made to maintain student health and safety,” Williamsburg city spokeswoman Nicole Trifone wrote in an email Monday. “The Community Commitment is a strong indicator of William & Mary’s concern for their students and employees as well as our community.”

Trifone said some of WYDaily’s questions about W&M “require speculation” or “ask procedural questions” and she referred other questions about the university’s reopening plans to school officials.

New students followed COVID-19 safety protocols as they moved in to residence halls Aug. 12-14. (WYDaily/Jim Agnew, W&M News)
New students followed COVID-19 safety protocols as they moved in to residence halls Aug. 12-14. (WYDaily/Jim Agnew, W&M News)

“The Governor of Virginia has empowered the Virginia Department of Health with the tools to enforce the orders he has used to protect the public health,” she added. “Observed violations of the Governor’s orders are passed along to VDH. Similarly, violations of W&M policy are passed on to the university.”

Restaurant response

Adam Steele, owner of Blue Talon Bistro, is not concerned with students returning back to Williamsburg and expects the students to mostly stay on campus.

“Attending College on campus is a vital part of the experience for the large majority of students on any campus,” he wrote in an email Saturday. “Given that we all need to be adapting our behavior for the safety of the community, we have always found our W&M student neighbors to be well behaved and respectful of others, so we have no reason to believe this year will be any different.”

He plans to treat them the same as other customers requiring students to wear masks indoors and follow social distancing guidelines in the restaurant.

When asked if he had any concerns about the univbersity reopening, Steele said he was concerned about large gatherings in the community, not just in regards to the college students.

Union concerns

But not everyone is happy the university has reopened

“It’s clear that they have opened against the health of pretty much everyone, including their workers and we are seeing the results of this now,” said Frances Bell, graduate worker in the college’s history department and member of the W&M Workers Union.

Bell said W&M is not protecting the paychecks of hourly workers who earn less than $50,000 a year, and the university is refusing to provide paid time off for non-essential staff required to work on campus.

W&M is also not giving employees, like maintenance and housekeeping staff, hazard pay, Bell said.

In addition, Bell said while the university is taking money from those who are making more money first but “it’s not university wide” so department cuts could happen without the supervisors getting their pay cut first.

She added the university does not have an ombudsman for staff to speak with if they have issues and W&M has yet to respond to the union’s demand citing the Virginia Right to Work law.

WYDaily reached out to Zagursky and Clavet about the union’s claims but neither was immediately available for further comment.

Classes start in person after Labor Day weekend.

As of Monday, there are 113,630 cases, 9,207 hospitalizations and 2,471 deaths in Virginia, according to the Virginia Department of Health’s website.

The latest coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the Historic Triangle from the Virginia Department of Health. (WYDaily/ Julia Marsigliano)
The latest coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the Historic Triangle from the Virginia Department of Health. (WYDaily/ Julia Marsigliano)

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