HARRISONBURG — Jessica Reyes watched as stickers on floors guiding direction and distance went unheeded and unregulated during the days of her first week back at James Madison University. And at night, she'd see groups at large as 15 dressed in party clothes and packing into Ubers.
Autry Harper saw students cycle in and out of a still-crowded dining hall — unmasked as they ate — during her shifts as a dining employee.
Ryan Ritter was surprised when 250 students gathered on campus, some maskless, to sit without six feet of distance between them for an Aug. 23 showing of “Knives Out.”
All three had mixed feelings about safely returning to school in person. But soon after they arrived on campus, the consensus became clear.
"There's no hope," Reyes thought as she stood should-to-shoulder with students in line for food.
Nine days after classes began, the university has seen 772 cases of coronavirus among its students and faculty — the most of any college in the state. The school announced Tuesday that it was sending students home from their dorms and making classes almost exclusively online, the first in Virginia to reverse course because of the virus. School administrators have said off-campus gatherings were behind much of the spread, but students said life on campus felt less safe than it should have.
It’s a familiar scene that has played out at campuses across the nation. Students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill saw a switch to online learning within a week of classes after it saw a surge of cases. Notre Dame halted in-person classes for two weeks due to a rise in cases, before beginning a gradual resumption on Wednesday.
The moves leave many students juggling moving plans with coursework, and the fear of catching the virus and taking it home to family members Among on-campus students, freshmen alone will be returning to some 36 states, the District of Columbia and 10 countries.
Reyes , a sophomore health sciences major from Chesapeake, is in quarantine at her apartment for 10 days after her roommate tested positive.
Harper, a junior music major, said her family made her quit her dining hall job after a shift during the first week of classes because it was a high-traffic environment they considered too risky. Harper was planning to move home to Staunton on Sunday.
Ritter, a sophomore history and international affairs major, decided to get tested at Godwin Hall before heading home to Chesapeake, where he lives with his grandmother.
JMU, located two hours northwest of Richmond in in Harrisonburg, is home to almost 20,000 undergraduate students and another 1,900 graduate students. Its COVID-19 cases grew rapidly at the start of the semester.
JMU reported 33 cases the day before classes began and 528 seven days later on Tuesday, when JMU officials decided to shut down in-person classes.
Around campus on a warm and sunny evening Wednesday, students and professors were continuing to come to grips with a semester that was pushed off course so quickly.
There was disappointment and frustration, but surprise seemed scarce.
“It was a great idea if it ever had the possibility of working, ...but there was nothing shocking in the fact that it didn’t work," history professor Mary Gayne said, donning a mask and blue gloves as she prepared to exit Wilson Hall. “And, I mean, it's a university. We make decision based on rational thought. And to think we could've pulled this off was a little bit magical."
On Friday, before the move to virtual learning, JMU reported 772 total cases of the virus, 650 of them active.
Testing wasn’t required prior to the start of the semester, university spokeswoman Caitlyn Read said, because the Virginia Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention didn't recommend it. Other colleges in the state decided to require it. Read also cited a testing shortage across the state, saying symptomatic people needed the tests more.
“I think largely, our students did really well,” Read said. “Most of our students adhered to the guidance, they made really good choices. This virus is just a very formidable foe. You know, there's nothing at blame here except for the virus. It's difficult and we're working through it together.”
Students’ experiences reveal the challenges of containing the virus within a college community, even with an assortment of protocols in place.
Ritter is the chair of a COVID-19 response team through the Student Government Association established earlier this summer. As a part of the job, he said he would meet with administrators when new COVID policies were put in place.
He said it made him more comfortable with returning to campus, even though he preferred starting the semester online.
“I was personally assured on numerous occasions that these policies would be enforced,” Ritter said.
JMU created a 34-page document outlining regulations surrounding opening campus and COVID-19. Guidelines outlined in the document include increasing distance between students in classrooms and ensuring gatherings of maximum 250 people, which comply with the state’s Phase 3 guidelines, are properly distanced with everyone wearing masks if the event’s indoors.
Ritter said a movie night he attended for the first 30 minutes had 250 people. Half the students weren’t wearing masks and hardly anyone social distanced. He’s been in classes where students sat less than 2 feet away from their peers.
While these university sponsored movie nights complied with state guidelines, they broke Harrisonburg’s current ordinance that caps gatherings at 50 put in place Aug. 13.
Many students live in off-campus apartments near campus — less than 7,000 live on campus — where it may be harder to police mask wearing, distancing and group size. Read said Tuesday that the school found that cases were contracted through social gatherings — a majority of which have occurred off campus.
“If you just get off campus, there's definitely some parties,” said Tyler Brittain, a senior biophysical chemistry major from Powhatan. “And a lot of people that don't look like they're wearing masks or practice social distancing. So it's not a huge surprise that [it's] closed now. Everyone here sort of expected that anyways. Unless they had a veil on their eyes."
Reyes, who saw groups leaving her apartment complex for parties and sometimes felt unable to move without being too close to someone in the campus dining hall, doesn't have any symptoms of the coronavirus. But she's locked in her room because her roommate received a positive test result Friday.
“We kind of moved in expecting one of us to get it at some point because like, I don't know, JMU just really didn't do the greatest job in our opinion of keeping the virus at bay,” Reyes said. “But we just were not expecting it to be this soon.”
She’s grateful for DoorDash no-contact delivery during her time in quarantine. While she and her roommates grocery shopped before they found out their roommate came into contact with the virus, she likes having a reprieve from eating chicken breast.
JMU also has 30 small, white and black “Starship” robots on wheels — that look like something out of “Star Wars” — to deliver food to dorms without any human contact.
On campus, some students said they learned to avoid the most crowded spaces.
“The dining hall is the scariest,” Harper said. “Because it's just where all the students on campus go. And they're allowed to eat in the dining hall. And take their masks off while they're eating. But they're all still inside.”
Bre Anderson, a senior international affairs major from Virginia Beach and an employee at Market 64, said she found it tough to enforce self-serve guidelines for buffet-style options there.
"They tried to implement people using like parchment paper things, to grab utensils. It's not really working,” Anderson said. “There's signs plastered everywhere for social distance, use the papers, don't touch it if you don't need it. Stuff like that. I've had to tell so many people to, 'Hey, pick up that paper. Hey, I need you to spread out a little bit.' It's really hard in there."
Out of the gate this semester, students took a mix of in-person, online and hybrid courses, blending the styles. Tuesday’s announcement stated that courses must move online by Monday in most cases. Some still had in-person courses to finish the week, despite the outbreak and impending closure.
Read said they’ve seen a good number of professors who have already made their transition online.
“Our faculty have been preparing for this all summer knowing full well, all along that this was a reality,” Read said. “So the large majority of our faculty are ready to go online. They've been anticipating something like this might happen.”
Gayne has three courses, with 107 freshmen. While she said she was sorry to be moving to online because it was a joy to work with her students, she planned ahead of time for a shift.
“My course is set,” she said. “Every minute I planned and I was like, 'The goal is to be ready to pivot.' So I'm not anxious about the move, that part.”
Read said the reason JMU didn’t start its semester online was because they wanted students to be able to engage with each other and their professors in the same way they’re used to. She added many students’ first preference was to return to campus.
She also cited the university’s students with lower socioeconomic backgrounds. JMU recognized how they may have a harder time doing online learning due to lack of access to resources.
Students who live on campus are being asked to leave by 5 p.m. on Monday, with the exception of those with extenuating circumstances. They can leave belongings. JMU, in its Tuesday move, stated that university officials would monitor health trends and determine by Sept. 25 whether there will be a possibility of resuming in-person classes. They would resume no sooner than Oct. 5.
In athletics, three sports (men’s basketball and women’s basketball and women’s golf) will be permitted to continue training for now. JMU paused activity in more than dozen other programs, including football, this past week due to an uptick in coronavirus cases — a total of 72 among athletes. Fall sports competition was suspended previously.
Refund policies for housing and dining will be prorated for the four weeks students are gone, Read said, but the amount back depends on where the student is living and what meal plan they have. Students who live in a “standard room” style like a single, double or triple that they don’t have all to themselves will receive a $1,044 refund for housing and dining.
Those leaving their dorms will also receive a $125 refund on their comprehensive fee. They'll also be eligible for refunds on meal plans and parking.
The date to withdraw from the university has been switched from Sept. 15 to Oct. 10 to account for JMU’s decision date about the rest of the semester.
Those who withdraw before Sept. 15 will receive a full refund. Students who withdraw after that will receive a prorated refund from Sept. 15 to the date of their withdrawal.
“It's just another way that we're trying to give people some financial flexibility,” Read said.
It's too early to tell how much the switch to online courses will cost the university. Read said when JMU issued refunds for housing, dining and parking when it first went online from mid-March through early May, the total cost was $13 million.
Many off-campus students are expected to stick around during the upcoming weeks, leading up to a final decision.
“Pretty much everybody, with a couple exceptions, pretty much everybody else is staying,” said Victoria Wirt, a senior economics major from McLean who lives off campus. "I mean, we kind of saw this coming. So it's not a huge surprise. So we prepared for it."
On Wednesday evening, the Virginia Department of Health administered about 340 tests at JMU’s Godwin Hall on a first-come, first-served basis. The event was planned before Tuesday’s news, and meant to expand testing capacity at the school.
A socially distanced line snaked around outside, though not all students were able to get tested before all tests were used.
A tweet from the University Health Center said the line reached capacity at around 5:46 that evening. Testing was slated to start at 6 p.m.
“We all have to go home. And I don't want to go home and bring this back to my family, who also have health issues. And work in medical offices,” said Leah Emerson, a freshman political science major from Calvert County, Md. “So I would rather know than go and quarantine myself for the safety of others, than risk it." As tests ran out, Emerson was handed a flier for a testing event in Harrisonburg’s Hillandale Park Friday, a day before her mother planned to pick her up.
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