University strategy, community effort helped semester go as planned
As the fall’s final grades are recorded, simply completing the semester as planned amid the COVID-19 pandemic represents a significant test passed.
“The biggest lesson learned is, the mitigation strategies work,” said Mike Mulhare, assistant vice president for emergency management. “The physical distancing, the face coverings, the increased hygiene, it all works and we need to continue that.”
Those efforts helped the seven-day positivity rate for the virus drop from a September peak of 19 percent to around 1 percent by the time the university shifted to all-virtual classes, as planned, following Thanksgiving break.
“Nineteen percent was probably not sustainable for operations, so getting that number down to a little over 1 percent was critical,” Mulhare said. “That speaks to not only what the university did from an operations standpoint, but also what the community did in response. That’s really what brought the number down.”
Since August, Virginia Tech has administered about 44,008 COVID-19 tests among the student and employee population, which includes the prevalence testing added in September. The Blacksburg campus has reported about 1,768 total positives, 47 of which being employees, and guided about 1,500 students through on-campus isolation or quarantines.
In total, 360 courses were held in-person and 1,604 courses followed a hybrid model, having some level of in-person activities, this fall. To date, the Virginia Department of Health has recorded zero transmissions of COVID-19 in those classrooms or laboratories, according to Noelle Bissell, director of the New River Health District.
Much of that success can be attributed to the thousands of hours spent planning and facilitating the modifications needed to help mitigate spread of the virus, as well as the messaging promoting adherence to public health guidelines, while still enjoying safe aspects of campus life.
The Incident Management Team, which is led by Emergency Management, has met almost 80 times since the middle of March and developed 29 separate action plans based on the everchanging nature of the pandemic. The university’s Teaching-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies group logged 3,300 hours and hosted 1,500 participants in workshops. And university-wide, employees self-reported 200,000 work hours related to new tasks created by the pandemic.
The university’s communications team published more than 467 stories and notices, 113 videos, and held 27 total town halls, conversations, and livestream events related to COVID-19. Since March, the main COVID-19 Ready website has been viewed almost 4 million times.
“Testing is a critical component of university mitigation strategy. One of the things that has made it possible for us to manage COVID-19 is that and have been able to do sample analysis not only for the university, but also for the surrounding health districts,” Mulhare said. “Without that resource, I don’t think the university would have been as successful.”
Schiffert Student Health Center was another critical component to mitigating the spread and successfully navigating the semester.
“So many in our campus community went above and beyond to help make the fall of 2020 a success. However, the work of the employees in our Schiffert Student Health Center will continue to stand out to me for many years to come,” said Chris Wise, the assistant vice president for health and wellness. “As many distanced themselves from the virus, health care workers across the country and right here on campus faced it head on by attending to those who had COVID symptoms while continuing to care for every student who visited Schiffert, regardless of the reason.”
More than 18,000 COVID-19 tests were performed by the center, according to Kanitta Charoensiri, director of the Schiffert Health Center. The center also assisted with setting up the Fralin testing lab, the testing in Lane Stadium, which took place for all on-campus residents in August, and managed the almost 1,500 students who were isolated or quarantined.
“The perseverance, ingenuity, and dedication of the Schiffert Health Center staff and the entire Virginia Tech community is really what made this possible,” Charoensiri said. “We were also greatly aided by having such strong partnership with the Virginia Department of Health, the New River Health District, and so many other departments that make up the university."
She added that it was also a huge advantage to be able to test students at no cost to them and that the students had largely been compliant with the recommended public health measures.
It was well-known much of the semester’s success would depend on the student population adhering to public guidelines. Those questions began to be answered during the move-in process and the accompanying testing in Lane Stadium.
“It was amazing, every student had their mask on when they got out of the car,” said Wise, who helped oversee the testing. “That was the first moment I realized the students are really in this with us and I think seeing the students’ commitment really helped motivate a lot of our employees to put in the extra work, the extra hours, and do a lot of things that weren’t in their job descriptions.”
Wise said that commitment from the students combined with the commitment from university leaders created a culture in which everyone felt a responsibility to do their part to ensure the semester could finished as planned.
“From President Sands to the Board of Visitors to all the vice presidents, I never once saw anyone who didn’t think this could happen or wouldn’t happen,” he said. “So, I think that attitude filtered up from the students and down from leadership and helped create a university-wide commitment.”
Along with the testing plan and availability, Wise said finding safe ways to keep the campus as engaging as possible was important to promoting collective buy-in of mitigation strategies. Throughout the semester, activities, such as Student Engagement and Campus Life’s Fall Fest and Hokie Wellness’ Hallowellness pumpkin carving, provided students opportunities to socialize in person and in accordance to the latest public health guidelines and despite adjusting to a reservation-based system, the gym saw a similar total of visitors this fall, as they did last fall.
“I think keeping places like the McComas Gym, Squires, and the library open and as functional as possible for students helped give students a reason to move around campus, see other students, and helped build a culture of mask wearing and physical distancing,” Wise said. “I don’t think we would have made it through the semester without some opportunities to engage like that on campus.”
— Written by Travis Williams