After closing campus to students and conducting the fall 2020 semester completely remotely, Randolph College soon will welcome students back to campus for the first time in more than 10 months.
In March 2020, the college announced it would move classes online for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester. The college later announced it would conduct the fall 2020 semester remotely as well.
In November, the college announced it would reopen campus for on-campus housing and in-person classes for the spring semester. Students were given the choice to return to campus or continue taking their classes remotely.
For junior Shae Starks, the decision to return to campus was not an easy one. As of Tuesday, 4,960 Lynchburg residents have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since March. Virginia has seen 407,947 positive cases. Last week, Lynchburg-area health officials expressed concern over the acceleration of new COVID-19 cases following the holidays.
“With the progression of the virus, we really had to consider if in-person classes was worth the risk,” Starks said.
Ultimately, she said, it was.
“For me, I just learn better in person and there’s just a lot less distractions,” she said.
Starks is among the nearly 240 students who will be returning to live on campus grounds later this month, according to Christopher Lemasters, dean of students at Randolph College and one of the 12-member Randolph College Coronavirus Task Force. The task force was established in March 2020, and continues to meet daily to assess the effect of the virus on the college.
Lemasters said another approximately 60 students will return to Lynchburg to attend in-person classes but will live off campus. Randolph College has about 600 students, meaning about half will be back on campus in some capacity.
Steve Willis, special assistant to the president and secretary of the board of trustees, said faculty also had the choice to continue teaching online or coming back to campus to conduct courses in a hybrid model with in-person and online learning. Willis, who also is a member of the task force, said the college doesn’t currently have a number of faculty who have chosen to return to campus.
But, life on campus will look much different. According to the reopening plan the task force released on the college’s website, several new regulations and mitigation processes will be put into place in order to allow students to return to campus safely and remain on campus.
Move-in for some students begins later this week, but many won’t return until Jan. 28, 30 and 31. The move-in process will look different than past years, according to Brenda Edson, director of college relations at Randolph College. Move-in times will be scheduled and staggered to avoid large groups on campus at one time. Students will be allowed only two people to assist them in moving their items, and all will have their temperature taken before going on campus.
Edson said all students are required to provide a negative COVID-19 test administered within 72 hours prior to their return to campus.
The college has designated two residence halls to house students who may be diagnosed with COVID-19 or experiencing symptoms: Webb Hall will house students who are in isolation because they have tested positive for the virus, while Grosvenor Apartments will house students who are experiencing symptoms of a respiratory illness and are pending test results or have been considered a close contact of someone diagnosed with COVID-19.
According to Edson, the college will have a COVID-19 dashboard on its website to keep students and Lynchburg communities informed of the state of the virus on campus. The dashboard will report positive cases of students and employees, as well as how many students and employees are in quarantine or isolation, Edson said. The dashboard will be updated daily, she added.
According to the college’s reopening plan, mitigation strategies such as maintaining 6 feet of physical distancing and wearing masks will be implemented, as well as changes to dining and housing on campus.
The college evaluated offices, classrooms and other shared spaces on campus and placed signs and markers on floors to remind people to maintain physical distancing. Seats were marked off as unusable in order to maintain distance whenever possible.
Spring classes will be delivered in a combination of in-person, hybrid and online models to reduce the number of people in buildings.
The college also removed high-touch shared items such as markers, scissors and pens from office and classroom spaces. For additional protection, plexiglass shields were added to classrooms, offices, labs, libraries and other spaces.
Students and staff will be encouraged to hold outdoor or virtual meetings when more than 10 people need to meet and physical distancing would be difficult to achieve. Face coverings are required in all buildings on campus, the reopening plan states, and must also be worn outside when six feet of physical distance is not possible.
Edson said all employees and students will receive a COVID-19 wellness bag that includes hand sanitizer, a branded face mask and a thermometer.
On-campus dining services will implement physical distancing guidelines, decrease capacity, eliminate self-serve stations and discontinue use of refillable cups. To-go boxes will be available and grab-and-go eating will be encouraged, Lemasters said.
All students living on campus will be given individual rooms, Lemasters said.
The college also will increase cleaning routines of residence halls, laundry rooms, classrooms, restrooms, locker rooms and other shared spaces. Theater events, athletic events and other concerts will be streamed online and won’t have live audiences.
“It’s going to take a little getting used to, but I’m willing to make that adjustment if it means I can go back,” Starks said.
A big factor in deciding to reopen campus for the spring, Willis said, was access to testing. The college is still planning details for testing, but Willis said they currently plan to randomly test a percentage of the faculty and students every week in addition to testing those who are symptomatic or have been in close contact with a COVID-19 positive person. Willis added the college hopes to test the entire on-campus population during the first week of classes.
“We’ve been able to watch other places and see what worked and learn from what we’ve heard from our peers and colleagues,” Willis said.
The task force maintains close contact with the local health department, as well as Centra, the Virginia Association of College and University Medical Directors, the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia and the American College Health Association.
The reopening plan outlines what circumstances may cause the college to “pause” on-campus activity, or shutdown campus all together. A “pause” would be a short-term, one- to two-week stop to in-person classes and a move to online delivery, and could be triggered by directive from the governor, a surge in community cases of COVID-19 or an on-campus outbreak of two or more cases that “constituted an appreciable threat of community spread,” the reopening plan states.
A shutdown, however, would mean moving all classes online for the remainder of the semester and shutting down campus to students and most staff members. A shutdown would be considered if the college reaches capacity for isolation and quarantine of residential students, sees an on-campus COVID-19 test positivity rate of more than 5% within a two-week period, or loses access to asymptomatic testing.
These guidelines are not set in stone, Willis said, and a decision to pause or shut down campus would be made in consultation with local and state health officials. The reopening plan and the frequently asked questions documents, Willis said, are adjusted as new information becomes available.
“All of these are living documents,” Willis said. “The one thing we do know is that things change very rapidly with COVID.”Willis said the task force continues to monitor COVID-19 cases and trends in Lynchburg and the surrounding area, as those trends could affect the college’s ability to remain open.
“We have our fingers on the pulse of what’s going on locally and regionally,” Willis said. “We would be irresponsible if we didn’t pay attention to what was going on beyond the red brick wall.”
Starks said even with all the changes, she can’t wait to be back on campus with her friends. She and her friends are already planning hikes and other outdoor activities so they can see each other safely when they all return.