A Semester Like No Other: What we’ve learned and where to go from here
By Madyson Fitzgerald
By mid- to late- August, as college students made the daunting trek back to their respective campuses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were reporting 40,000 to 45,000 cases of the novel COVID-19 virus per day.
This week, as those same college students pack their bags for the road home, the United States is closing in on an average 200,000 cases per day, a goal that Michael Osterholm, a member on President-Elect Joe Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board, says we’ll reach quickly.
“We will get well north of 200,000 cases a day even more … and we’re still going to have to figure out what we’re going to do here,” he told Yahoo Finance Live in an interview. Many other experts are expressing the same concern.
In response to the recent surge in cases, Governor Ralph Northam has announced new restrictions to prevent further spread in the state of Virginia. “COVID-19 is surging across the country, and while cases are not rising in Virginia as rapidly as in some other states, I do not intend to wait until they are. We are acting now to prevent this health crisis from getting worse,” Northam said in a news release on November 13.
“Everyone is tired of this pandemic and restrictions on our lives. I’m tired, and I know you are tired too. But as we saw earlier this year, these mitigation measures work. I am confident that we can come together as one Commonwealth to get this virus under control and save lives.”
The new restrictions include smaller public and private gatherings, an expansion of the current mask mandate, strengthened enforcement within businesses, and alcohol sale curfews.
The surge in cases across the nation is being reflected on Virginia’s colleges and universities. A New York Times survey, collecting information from over 1,700 schools in the U.S., has reported over 250,000 on college campuses alone.
Of the 41 reporting schools in Virginia, there are over 7,800 cases, and the number is only increasing as students prepare to head home. James Madison University, reporting 1,621 cases, was forced to send their students home midway through the semester to stave off the spread. Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia follow behind closely, with 1,347 and 1,119 cases, respectively. Despite continued mask mandates and social distancing efforts, the threat of COVID-19 persists.
The numbers paint a chilling picture, but many colleges and universities have learned what needs to be done for next semester. For one, remote learning continues to be the safest alternative to in-person instruction. Since the majority of schools are giving students the option to stay home, many are taking it.
Schools that remained remote for the fall semester also have the advantage of surveying the playing field. Virginia State University, one of only three Virginia schools that decided to remain remote this fall, will begin in-person instruction for the spring semester of 2021.
Like every other school, testing protocols and prevention plans will be put in place. By waiting another semester, it’s their hope that they have a better measure on how to keep their students safe.
President Makola M. Abdullah told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that they’ve realized that on-campus activity is not the largest issue. Similar to JMU’s case in September, off-campus gatherings are the downfall for many schools. “It’s just difficult,” Abdullah told the Times-Dispatch. “All of it’s difficult.”
“There’s no guarantee you won’t have an outbreak. You have to prepare like you will have an outbreak,” he continued.
On November 18, Johns Hopkins University reported that the U.S. had reached 250,000 deaths across the country. In almost every state, there have been steep inclines in the amount of daily cases reported. Despite promising news earlier this week about effective vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, until one is approved for mass production, there is still a lot of work that needs to go into stopping the spread right now.
As students travel home, many experts voice new problems that will emerge come the holidays. In an interview with The Washington Post, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said that now is the time to be especially careful.
“We’re in for a whole lot of hurt. It’s not a good situation,” Fauci said. “All the stats are aligned in the wrong place as you go into the fall and winter season, with people congregating home indoors. You could not possibly be positioned more poorly.”
Colleges and universities will continue to monitor the spread of the virus over the break. These next few months will likely determine how schools will continue their instruction for the coming spring semester.