Health and safety considerations guided spring decisions, say Virginia Tech leaders
Virginia Tech leaders say that decisions about spring semester scheduling and protocols have been guided primarily by health and safety considerations.
In a town hall moderated by Dawn Jefferies, four academic leaders at Virginia Tech acknowledged they have heard frustration from students, especially about losing a weeklong spring break, but are looking for solutions that still allow time to relax and unwind while limiting travel — a key strategy for limiting the spread of COVID-19.
“There’s no one who wanted to cancel spring break,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Frank Shushok Jr. "We know how important it is for students, faculty, and staff to have a break in the middle of the semester, but we needed to do something different with spring break. Travel is a key variable for controlling the spread of COVID-19.”
A lot of factors went into calendar decisions, said Associate Vice Provost and University Registrar Rick Sparks. Factors that went into the decision to spread out the five “well-being days” across the week, instead of stacking them to make three-day weekends, including not negatively affecting financial aid and not disproportionately affecting Monday/Wednesday/Friday classes.
“This was not a fun endeavor, trying to put together a spring plan realizing we needed to back away from spring break,” Sparks said. “If we only took Fridays off, we would disproportionately hit those courses that are held on Fridays. If you do the math, that takes away a third of the [credit] hours on Friday courses.”
Similarly, the university chose not to just end the semester a week early because leaders wanted the campus community to have days of rest. A frequently asked question from students has been about how the university will prevent faculty from treating the well-being days like any other day, scheduling exams and assignments due the following day.
Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke is asking faculty to think of these days as breaks and make a conscious effort to plan so that breaks aren’t just extra days to study, said Vice Provost for Undergraduate Academic Affairs Rachel Holloway.
“We’re asking faculty to think about the regular rhythm of the semester, and adjust it” for the well-being days, Holloway said.
She acknowledged that some students will choose to use days off to study, but encouraged everyone to use those days to take extra time for rest and recharging.
Vice President and Dean for Graduate Education Karen DePauw added that no courses, assignments, or related work will be assigned to or expected of graduate students. Virginia Tech is committed to making sure that students, both graduate and undergraduate, get a real break on these well-being days, she said.
Looking toward the spring, DePauw anticipates more in-person classes, although many will still be in an online or hybrid format.
Dec. 7 looms large as an important date for students. That’s the date by which move-in slots and information about COVID-19 testing for returning students will be published. It’s also the deadline for students who choose to go all virtual in the spring to cancel their housing contract and receive a refund on the housing fee.
Students who require flights to get home and back to campus between semesters have asked about the course delivery dates. Shushok said the university will work with students in that situation so they can plan accordingly.
The university is considering additional changes for residential living in the spring, though those details are still being worked out, Shushok said. One change included the return of outdoor basketball hoops in residential areas as of Thursday, he said. Another possibility is a pod program for residence halls that would allow more engagement among small groups of students.
“The pod concept has worked,” Shushok said. “Many students are doing that very well.”
The pandemic continues to evolve in unprecedented ways, but Virginia Tech is moving forward, largely based on members of its community following public health protocols.
“We know we’ve got to wear masks,” said Holloway. “We’ve got to maintain our distance. We’ve got to wash our hands, use our sanitizer. As long as we continue to do that, I think we’ll be really successful in continuing to be Virginia Tech, both in and outside the classroom.”
Learn more about Virginia Tech’s pandemic response at the Ready site. The town hall on plans for the spring semester also is available for rewatching.
— Written by Mason Adams