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COVID-19 cluster spurs quick conversion of VCU Honors College into isolation unit

Floors of VCU’s Honors College building will be used to house residential students who test positive for COVID-19, after 44 VCU Athletics affiliates tested positive for the virus, according to a university spokesperson.

Capital News Service

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By Hannah Eason and Andrew Ringle

Virginia Commonwealth University will convert three floors of a building that houses classrooms and workspaces into an isolation space for students who test positive for COVID-19, according to a university spokesperson. The number of positive cases on campus has more than tripled since the university began reporting its cases online Aug. 20.

The plan calls for converting the seventh floor of the Honors College building immediately, followed by the fifth and sixth floors as needed — creating up to 160 additional spaces for students who need to stay in isolation.

As of Thursday, there are 110 reported active cases at the university — 98 students and 12 employees. According to the dashboard, a cluster of 44 positive cases from the VCU Athletics department “necessitated the need for additional isolation space.”

“Students could move in as soon as this week, but the exact day will depend on need,” Jennifer Malat, dean of College of Humanities and Sciences, said in an email to employees that was shared with The Commonwealth Times, the independent, student-run newspaper at VCU.

Isolating students will use the rear entrance to the Honors College and will access their rooms by the rear elevator, according to the email, “and will not need to leave their rooms until they are cleared for release.”

“I recognize the pandemic has been an especially challenging time for those who work in the Honors College building,” Malat stated in the email. “I appreciate your patience as we help to create a space that will help prevent students who have tested positive for coronavirus from interacting with the general population.”

The residence hall Gladding Residence Center III, which has a capacity of 54 isolation units, was at risk of running out of space, a VCU spokesperson said.

“The cluster of 44 student cases rapidly reduced VCU’s capacity to offer isolation housing in GRC III,” university spokesperson Michael Porter said in an email. “A decision to use the upper floors of the Honors College was made Tuesday evening after VCU Health confirmed the space was not currently needed for treating non-COVID-19 patients.”

Porter said deans and chairs began notifying their departments about the Honors College conversion Wednesday morning after the decision was made. All classes in the Honors College are being relocated, Porter said, and VCU is looking at relocating offices and labs in the building.

“The change will have no impact on workspace or access to offices or labs,” Porter said in an email. “Staff and faculty will not be interacting with COVID-19 positive students in the workplace.”

Porter said faculty in the physics department, housed in the Honors College, are discussing the impacts of the conversion but have not decided yet to move classes online.

In the Honors College building, students will receive food and medication via delivery, and employees will monitor the building entrance. The building’s HVAC system is under maintenance so that there are no pathways for air to enter into the lower floors from the upper floors, Porter said.

The email from Malat was shared by an employee who works in the Honors College building and wished to remain anonymous. On Wednesday, they said they saw maintenance crews preparing rooms for conversion. The employee said they later received the announcement indirectly and felt it was “as an afterthought.”

“We are, in my unit, terrified,” the employee said. “They prepared this quietly and secretly, and waited until the last possible minute to inform anyone.”

 Porter did not respond directly when asked why employees were not informed going into the semester that the pivot to use the space could happen.

VCU and VCU Health System prepared the Honors College in March to be used as a potential overflow hospital for non-COVID-19 patients. Student belongings were removed from the building without their knowledge and moved to a nearby storage facility.

The employee said that in the university’s decision to plan another conversion without consulting employees, “they decided our health and safety doesn’t matter.”

“We are underpaid, understaffed, overworked, and now they take it further, and in the process, try to keep secret the need for MORE students to” isolate, the employee said in a direct message. “They are risking the health of staff, of students, of faculty.”

Editor’s note: This article was written by staff members of The Commonwealth Times, the independent student newspaper at VCU which originally published the article.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Night shift: Student safety ambassadors provide a resource for the VCU community after dark

The ambassadors, part of the university’s transition to a more equitable public safety model, provide assistance when people need help but don’t need to contact law enforcement.

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If you’re looking for Virginia Commonwealth University sophomore Ayanna Farmer-Lawrence in the evenings, you’ll most likely find her around the Compass wearing a bright-yellow vest.

Farmer-Lawrence is a newly hired student safety ambassador for the VCU Police Department — and her vest is both a uniform and visual identifier for VCU community members.

This past summer, the university announced a plan for police reform initiatives, including workforce realignment and the hiring of non-sworn, unarmed employees to serve as resources on campus when members of the VCU community need assistance, but do not feel compelled to contact law enforcement.

Carly Jackson wearing a safety vest.
Carly Jackson models a designated, uniform vest during her shift. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

John Venuti, VCU’s associate vice president of public safety and chief of police, said with safety and well-being as the focus, a student may be a better alternative option for needs such as asking for directions, answering questions about transportation, working at events and walking people to their cars at night.

“The safety ambassadors will be present in places with high volumes of students, such as outside the University Student Commons and the Compass,” Venuti said. “They will predominately work at night because in the spring 2020 perception of safety survey, students told us they feel less safe at night.”

The three safety ambassadors received 40 hours of training and are also tasked with reporting safety concerns they come across during their shifts. In their first two nights working, they reported to police about damaged property, a traffic light failure and a fire at a business on West Broad Street.

Farmer-Lawrence, a homeland security and criminal justice major in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, said the part-time position coincides with her goal of becoming a special agent for the FBI. She was drawn to become a safety ambassador to learn from police, build relationships, network and be ready for internships or employment opportunities upon graduation.

“I thought it was a good idea to be that person that [people] can go to if they have a problem, but don’t want to go to the police directly,” Farmer-Lawrence said. “It’s a good idea given what’s going on in society currently.”

Venuti said he looks forward to hearing feedback from community members about the new program and plans to expand the number of student safety ambassadors, and their designated locations, in spring 2021.

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University of Richmond Partners with Richmond Public Schools on No Loan Program

“The No Loan Program gives our students the remarkable opportunity to graduate with a degree from a world-class institution without taking on any debt,” said RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras. “We are incredibly grateful to President Crutcher, and the entire University of Richmond team, for this generous commitment to our students.”

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The University of Richmond has announced, in a first-of-its-kind partnership, it will meet the full demonstrated financial need for all RPS graduates who qualify to attend with grant aid — not with loans — up to the full cost of attendance at UR.

“We know that the thought of taking out loans may create anxiety for families, particularly among first-generation students,” said University of Richmond President Ronald A. Crutcher. “The University of Richmond and the City of Richmond want to retain our best students in the region, and the No Loan Program will further that effort.”

“The No Loan Program gives our students the remarkable opportunity to graduate with a degree from a world-class institution without taking on any debt,” said RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras. “We are incredibly grateful to President Crutcher, and the entire University of Richmond team, for this generous commitment to our students.”

“The University of Richmond has been a wonderful partner for RPS over the years,” said School Board Chairwoman Linda Owen. “I am thrilled to see the collaboration continue in this way and I can’t wait to see the next generation of RPS students who become Richmond Spiders.”

The University of Richmond and Richmond Public Schools already partner on a number of programs. UR offers RPS specific admission and financial aid workshops. UR Bonner Scholars and students from the Jepson School of Leadership Studies’ “Justice and Civil Society” class volunteer with RVA Future Centers. Also, the student-led UR Mentoring Project brings UR students in to mentor students in the Armstrong Leadership Program.

UR also offers Richmond’s Promise to Virginia, which provides full tuition, room, and board grants to all Virginians who come from families with incomes below $60,000.

“We hope local students will consider Richmond and know that they will find the diverse community here that is found at other top universities, said Stephanie Dupaul, vice president for Enrollment Management. “RPS students who attend Richmond will find that staying local doesn’t mean they only have local experiences. Our financial aid awards are only part of the story. We also guarantee funding for faculty-mentored research and internships; we ensure that students are able to study abroad; and we provide the pathways for students to successful careers and graduate school.”

UR students also benefit from the partnership. “Just as students from Richmond benefit from the geographically diverse student population at the University, students from around the nation and world have much to learn from our hometown students,” Crutcher said.

Over the last decade, UR has invested more than $11 million in University-funded aid to graduates of Richmond Public Schools and the City of Richmond-located magnet schools.

“I am so pleased that we can expand our financial aid programs to make it possible for more RPS students to graduate as Spiders,” Crutcher said.

Current RPS seniors are encouraged to apply by Jan. 1 for fall semester 2021.

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Here come the Mavericks: New nickname, chapter for Douglas Freeman High School

When Douglas Freeman High School competitors next take the field or court, it will be as the Mavericks. John Marshall, principal, announced the new nickname — along with a new logo — in a message Thursday to students, families and staff members. The choice was the favorite of respondents in a survey of four options, and was selected by the school’s administration, in tandem with student leaders.

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When Douglas Freeman High School competitors next take the field or court, it will be as the Mavericks. John Marshall, principal, announced the new nickname — along with a new logo — in a message Thursday to students, families and staff members. The choice was the favorite of respondents in a survey of four options, and was selected by the school’s administration, in tandem with student leaders.

The final contenders — Mavericks, Pioneers, Trailblazers and United — were announced in October by a committee made up of members of the school community. The group had help from VCU’s nationally recognized Brandcenter, which includes Douglas Freeman alumni. The Brandcenter also helped develop the logo for the final selection, a stylized “M” above the words “Freeman Mavericks.” The new branding will join the school’s interlocking “DSF” logo, which will remain in use.

“After a careful and intentional process to find a new school nickname, symbol and mascot, we are overjoyed to announce that we are moving forward together, starting today,” said Marshall in a message to the school community.

Marshall noted that the nickname describes the school’s independent spirit and is consistent with the school’s core values of excellence, pride, intensity, family, diversity and tradition.

“We are free-thinkers and forward thinkers,” Marshall said. “We challenge the status quo to make the world a better place.”

To see a video featuring students and staff members talking about the selection, go to www.freemanmascot.info/announcement.

The school will share details soon about a planned “spirit-wear swap” where students can trade in Rebels gear for items with the new nickname and logo.

Marshall also announced in August the creation of the “Freeman Forward Fund” in partnership with the Henrico Education Foundation. The fund will build school culture and support long-term efforts to promote inclusivity and innovation. Members of the public can donate to the fund by going to https://bit.ly/33oNrqu.

The school announced in August that, after a review process that included public input, it was retiring its “Rebels” nickname and would seek a more inclusive nickname and mascot. That process drew more than 2,000 comments, including around 1,500 responses through an online form. The input also included emails, social media posts, handwritten notes, voicemails, videos and an online panel discussion on the topic.

While the school had used the Rebels name since it opened in 1954, it has not used a visual mascot for many years, instead opting for the “DSF” logo.

The school is named for Douglas Southall Freeman, a Richmond historian, author and journalist. While Freeman won Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies of both Robert E. Lee and George Washington, the school’s original mascot was likely inspired by his Confederate subjects.

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