It's been a historic, challenging year - Here's how the Hokie Nation persevered
Thousands of Hokies visited Lane Stadium this past year, but it wasn’t to watch a football game, nosh on turkey legs, and hear the Corps of Cadets' Skipper cannon fire. It was to receive a COVID-19 test, a vaccine, or both.
This change in identity for Virginia Tech’s iconic Lane Stadium underscores the enormous shift that the academic year took in Blacksburg and at universities around the world.
The year of the coronavirus pandemic was historic. It changed the way students learned and interacted, the way professors taught classes, the way employees worked, and the way campus and community operated at Virginia Tech locations around the state.
Still, the Hokie Nation persevered. This fall, the majority of classes will be held in person and campus operations will return to more normal levels.
And this week, Lane Stadium is recapturing some of its glory as the host site for numerous, small in-person commencement ceremonies to celebrate Hokie graduates.
Here are five ways that Virginia Tech maneuvered a challenging academic year and emerged stronger as a result.
Tracking and testing
As coronavirus cases grew across the country, Virginia Tech put a plan in place for managing the virus and its spread on campus. Students returned in the fall to mandatory COVID-19 testing at Lane Stadium for those living on campus.
The university also designed a dashboard to report daily the number of COVID-19 tests and positive cases on campus, as well as the number of students living in designated quarantine and isolation residence halls. Additionally, Virginia Tech organized a case management team to help employees and students.
As for testing throughout the semester, the university contracted with ARCPoint Labs, a national third-party provider of diagnostic testing services, opened a testing center at Lane Stadium for surveillance and prevalence testing for students and university employees. With the help of numerous Virginia Tech students who were employed there, the site performed about 800 tests a day.
Additionally, Schiffert Health Center performed tests for students with COVID-19 symptoms who were not included as part of surveillance and prevalence testing.
Virginia Tech’s COVID-19 Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory, located at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke, processed more than 100,000 samples to support health districts across Virginia and the university community since its launch in April 2020. The lab was selected as one of the state’s three exclusive OneLab Network Tier 2 laboratories to help expand COVID-19 testing capacity across Virginia.
At three of Virginia Tech's Northern Virginia campuses, more than 400 COVID-19 tests were conducted for students and employees.
This extensive testing program gave Virginia Tech the tools to make sound decisions about how to manage campus, and remain open, during the pandemic.
“We developed a testing strategy that was manageable and informed decision making without being to the point where we were testing everybody every week,” said Mike Mulhare, assistant vice president for emergency management at Virginia Tech. “That informed decision making allowed us to manage cases, minimizing the opportunity for the virus to spread to others.”
Data and science guided decision making throughout the year. The mindset was “let’s follow the data. Let’s make calm, rational, informed decisions. That's key,” Mulhare said.
Virginia Tech designated New Hall West and East Eggleston Hall as isolation and quarantine spaces for students who tested positive for COVID-19 or were in close contact with someone with the virus.
But it wasn’t easy for students to spend 10 to 14 days in isolation or quarantine. That’s when some new programs to support students came to life.
In the spring semester, Virginia Tech added welcome desks, manned by Student Affairs employees, at the entry ways of each hall. They served as concierge desks for students who needed certain supplies as well as spaces to receive food and other deliveries from outside.
The desks were a much needed service, particularly In February when the isolation and quarantine spaces reached peak capacity with about 203 students, said Sean Grube, director of housing and residence life.
“Without the front desk, it would have been really hard to take care of them well,” he said.
Additionally, a new fenced courtyard served as an outdoor respite for students who wished to use it for specific designated times daily.
Employees throughout the university also volunteered as student advocates. Each advocate was assigned to a student in quarantine and isolation, helping and communicating with them during the 10- to 14-day period.
It was a year of learning and navigating.
“There's a lot of things we didn’t know, but I also think we have learned about new ways to care for students as well as what they need when they are experiencing some really difficult situations,” Grube said.
Creativity was a theme in the past academic year across campus, from redesigning classes for virtual learning to developing ways for students to interact in-person safely.
The Division of Student Affairs launched the pods network during the spring semester. Pods are small groups of students who can relax some COVID-19-related precautions when together with a shared commitment to one another’s health and well-being. Students registered their pods, named them, and participated in certain programs together, such as private group exercise classes and game nights.
About 1,500 students or 20 percent of the student population participated in pods, Grube said.
“It allowed more freedom around campus, and I think that was big,” he said.
Also, professors and students found ways to teach and learn safely in person, from the Virginia Tech Chamber Singers rehearsing in the Perry Street parking garage to outdoor labs for Wildlife Field Biology and Mammalogy courses taught by Kevin Hamed, a collegiate assistant professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation.
“We are trying to show the students that this is a great opportunity to learn how to be adaptive and creative,” Hamed said last fall.
Students standing for public health
From volunteering at testing centers to helping with vaccinations and spreading the word about COVID-19 safety, the Virginia Tech community played a big part in pushing out the public health messages this past year.
A group of Hokies studying public health, coined the COVID Crushers, were particularly visible in the fall as they took to the streets of downtown Blacksburg on Fridays and Saturdays to distribute face masks and hand sanitizer, and talk with people about public health guidelines during the pandemic. The students also created a COVID-19 themed podcast.
Students and Virginia Tech faculty and staff also served in the Medical Reserve Corps in the New River Valley, which is an arm of the Virginia Department of Health. The MRC consists of volunteers stationed throughout the commonwealth who help with public health initiatives and other needs.
Through the MRC, some volunteered as contact tracers and case investigators and worked at testing and vaccination sites.
The MRC and other university volunteers were key to helping the New River Health District test hundreds of people a day at COVID-19 test sites, said Noelle Bissell, the district’s health director, earlier this year.
Some Hokies invented products to help with COVID-19 communication. One example is TranparenSee, a group of students in the engineering and Master of Public Health programs who designed a clear, fog-resistant face mask to allow for better communication with the deaf and hard of hearing community. They have designed more than 1,000 masks and distributed them for free to schools and families across the country.
It’s clear that Hokies have been essential to helping the community manage the pandemic, said Laura Hungerford, who heads the public health program housed in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.
“The students took leadership in designing improvements and providing information, masks and hand sanitizer to crush COVID. They really flattened the curve here,” she said. “Now, the community is worried about how we'll manage without help from students as they graduate or leave for the summer.”
Vaccines for all
Once the coronavirus vaccines were available for Virginia Tech employees and students, the university sprung to action, working with the New River Health District to make the vaccines as accessible as possible.
Lane Stadium served as the site for large vaccination clinics, with the first held April 15 and organized and overseen by the New River Task Force and the health district. Students received first doses of the Moderna vaccine, at what was considered the largest vaccination clinic ever held in the New River Valley.
The clinic enlisted more than 140 volunteers from the Virginia Tech community, with about 40 percent of those being students.
“This is how we’ve done the entire New River Valley; it’s been one continuous outreach project,” said Anthony Wilson, Blacksburg police chief, on April 15. “If folks want to know the secret to how we got so many folks vaccinated and how we were able to have such a successful clinic today, it’s this combination of everybody from all different walks of life coming together to make sure we all do it.”
Lane Stadium served as the site for numerous large community vaccination clinics from mid-April through May 18.
The widespread availability of vaccines for university employees and students was key to Virginia Tech’s ability to hold a variety of small and safe in-person spring commencement ceremonies this week, Bissell said. With many people having received vaccines and with the ceremonies held outdoors, the risk of COVID-19 transmission is low, she said during a May 10 meeting with members of the news media.
As Virginia Tech wraps up the academic year, it’s important to remember that its successes came as a result of many different offices and people working together.
“It certainly demonstrated what Virginia Tech and the Hokie Nation can and does do when faced with a challenge,” Mulhare said.
— Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone