Looking back throughout the semester, Virginia Wesleyan has had a much lower amount of COVID-19 cases in comparison to the last academic year. . With the introduction of the COVID-19 vaccine, cases have remained low and have definitely been mitigated. Even with the introduction of the vaccine, masks were required upon the return of students for the Fall 2021 semester.
Many students felt frustrated by the “promise” of returning to normal for the new semester. This is largely in part due to the relinquished mask mandate over the summer and the reinstatement of it just before students moved in. For the most part, students have had a positive outlook on campus life with the return of some of their favorite activities and being able to socialize in a more frequent fashion.
In regard to the COVID-19 vaccine requirement, faculty and staff were given until the end of their contract year while students were given a specific date for compliance of this policy. President Miller elaborated on the campus’s success and triumphs over the pandemic. He stated that 41 students chose to unenroll for the Fall semester due to the university’s vaccine requirement. “We really don’t apologize for that [unenrolled students] because we wanted to contribute to the safety of everyone and not just the few,” Miller said.
Further, he stated, “We have 438 employees and all but two cooperated with our vaccination requirement. Those two essentially self-terminated.” President Miller hinted at the divisiveness that comes along with making decisions concerning COVID-19 mitigation. “No matter what you do, 50% of the people agree with you and 50% don’t,” Miller said. In general, the nation has seen increasing divides and backlash with the introduction of government policies, vaccination requirements and mitigation efforts.
Dr. Keith Moore, vice president for campus life and operational management and appointed campus COVID-19 coordinator, said “I think things have been going exceptionally well.” For the 2021 Fall semester, there have been 14 cumulative COVID-19 cases. This is a sharp decrease from the approximately 50 cases from the last two semesters. He noted that this was in line with the surges occurring at those times. He nodded to last year’s mitigation efforts as being “exemplary” and even the “best in the state” upon meeting with other colleges throughout the Commonwealth.
Dr. Moore elaborated on the masking policy for this year by stating that “masks are the only thing we have been told we need to continue to do. Local public health has said we have been the best community to work with, especially with our high vaccination rate, superseding public schools, universities and senior living facilities.”
In addressing last year, Dr. Moore stated, “We know last year was difficult for everybody, particularly the students, and knowing that, we wanted this year to be the safest normal possible.”
When asked about a COVID-19 booster mandate and continued masking, President Miller responded, “It depends… we will be taking a look at it between the end of the semester and the start of J-term and the beginning of the second semester.” He alluded to the changes occurring in Richmond on Jan. 15 with incoming Governor Glenn Youngkin bringing in different statewide mandates and regulations for the state. These are all things that must be considered when charting a path forward for VWU. Both Dr. Moore and President Miller noted that the positivity rate in the immediate region was approximately seven percent.
When asked about the rising mental health concerns of young adults with the pandemic, President Miller expressed concern by saying, “It is definitely on our radar and we have expanded staffing in those areas, specifically April Christman, who addresses student health, both physical and mental.” Proactively, the school looked at these concerns in the summer before the Fall 2020 semester. Suicide awareness has also been more prominent on campus, as well as increasing access to counseling.
President Miller stated, “We have been tracking the mental health of students by monitoring nonattendance in class, progress reports, meeting resident assistants and asking athletic coaches to closely monitor students.” Heads of departments and deans have also been specially asked to monitor these signs in both faculty and students alike.
For the past two weeks, the university has reported zero confirmed cases. This is compared to the previous two weeks on campus of the Fall 2020 semester, five and four cases respectively, to the previous two weeks of this semester, zero cases for both weeks. The future brings much uncertainty with COVID-19. As much as students would like to have a solidified answer on how the university will move forward, one is not available yet.
Recently, the Omicron variant of COVID-19 emerged from southern regions in Africa. It is proving to be more contagious than Delta. This will certainly play a part in how decisions are made in the future as well, especially with the recent introduction of the variant to the United States.
By: Jack Palmer