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More college students head into quarantine as COVID-19 cases rise

James Madison University and the University of Virginia released COVID-19 dashboards this week, showing the total number of cases on campus and other information.

Capital News Service

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By Noah Fleischman

As more universities open, they’re collecting and releasing COVID-19 data and grappling with contingency plans for those who contract the disease.

The University of Virginia in Charlottesville released its first set of COVID-19 testing data on Wednesday. There have been 58 total positive cases at the university since Aug. 17, including 31 students. The university’s quarantine rooms are currently 5% occupied and the isolation rooms are not occupied.

“Students living off-Grounds will be expected to quarantine or isolate at their off-Grounds housing,” the university wrote in its public health plan. “Students who can safely travel home to isolate or quarantine will be encouraged to do so.”

The university is exploring monitoring COVID-19 among the student population by testing wastewater from certain buildings and is considering point prevalence surveys, which test every person in a certain area or building regardless of symptoms.

Virginia also has an online portal for students and those in the surrounding community to report infractions of the university’s coronavirus policies.

James Madison University in Harrisonburg debuted its COVID-19 dashboard Tuesday, which showed 125 positive cases mostly tied to students. Fifteen JMU students on campus tested positive since July 1 and 107 self-reported their positive test results since Aug. 17. Three employees also self-reported positive results since then. The university has tested almost 820 students since July 1. Eleven students that live off-campus and are affiliated with the same organization tested positive, JMU said Wednesday.

“If [students] need to isolate or need to quarantine, we are asking that they do so at home, where they can be supported by family or friends if that’s possible,” said Caitlyn Read, JMU spokesperson.

JMU can provide students that cannot return home to quarantine or isolate with a space to do so, Read said. The university health center staff checks on the students daily, provides them with food, and makes sure they have access to coursework, Read said.

As of Thursday, JMU had 14 beds occupied for students in isolation or quarantine out of 143 available beds.

Various factors will determine if JMU goes to a virtual format for all classes, including the number of cases on campus and isolation and quarantine space available on campus, Read said. She also said the amount of personal protective equipment available for health workers on campus and the COVID-19 positivity rate in Harrisonburg will be considered.

Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond added prevalence testing data to its COVID-19 dashboard, logging 70 tests with one positive COVID-19 result as of Thursday, for a 1.4% positivity rate. VCU’s prevalence testing program tests asymptomatic people within the university, including employees and about 5% of students that live on campus and about 2% of students that do not.

VCU had 110 active cases on campus as of Thursday–98 students and a dozen employees. The university reported a cluster of 44 cases within the athletic department, forcing it to open an isolation space at the former Honors college dorm. VCU reported 167 students are in on-campus quarantine or isolation. The cases have increased 205% since the dashboard launched a week ago with 36 total cases.

On Thursday, a Grainger vending machine appeared on VCU’s campus, stocked with face masks and hand sanitizer.

Blacksburg-based Virginia Tech reported 16 more COVID-19 cases on campus on Aug. 23, an increase from five cases the week before. The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg has tested almost 4,600 students and 607 employees. Fifteen students and less than 10 employees tested positive prior to arriving on campus on Aug. 19. Fairfax-based George Mason University conducted almost 2,950 tests since Aug. 2. Eight tests were positive since then, including six students and two employees.

Some colleges are currently fully online. Virginia State University in Petersburg announced this week that all classes will be conducted remotely for the fall semester due to COVID-19 concerns. The university won’t have residential students on campus, VSU President Makola M. Abdullah said in a video posted on the university’s Facebook page.

On Tuesday, the University of Lynchburg announced classes will remain virtual until Sept. 2 due to positive COVID-19 cases after shifting to remote learning on Aug. 20. The university has 44 positive cases as of Thursday–31 on-campus and 13 off-campus.

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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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The new on-campus college experience: self-isolation and distraction

Social isolation due to the coronavirus has become a stressor for many college students across Virginia, who report that studying is more difficult and their mental health is suffering.

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By Hunter Britt

Social isolation due to the coronavirus has become a stressor for many college students across Virginia, who report that studying is more difficult and their mental health is suffering.

Shane Emory, a senior broadcast journalism major at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, says he is experiencing this firsthand. While the dorms are quieter overall, there is very little opportunity to escape distractions. Emory says that his guitar and television are the top two things that draw him away from work.

Since the pandemic swept the nation, altered routines have become the new normal. Students who usually study in the library say that is no longer an option to consider lightly. Many students say the best option is to stay put and endure distractions and loneliness rather than risk contracting the virus or unknowingly endangering someone else.

Camryn Nesmith, a junior nursing major at Liberty University in Lynchburg, says that increased social isolation has taken a toll on her concentration and mental wellbeing. She also says that it is difficult to escape from loud noises and distractions in her dorm.

“There has been an effect on my school work because I don’t do well doing schoolwork in my dorm. I need to be in the library or somewhere like that,” she says. “I try to get my work done early in the morning when it’s quiet.”

Nesmith feels that Liberty prioritizes the safety of its students and that there are always people enforcing the rules and making sure everyone wears a mask. The university is currently reporting 184 total cases since Sept. 2. Almost 490 on-campus students are currently quarantined, along with 492 commuters and 139 employees.

Marian Woodington, a sophomore vocal music education major at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, says via email that she initially attended in-person classes, albeit reluctantly. Cases quickly spiked at the Harrisonburg-based university, hitting over 500 the first week classes resumed.

“I did feel reluctant because, since there were not harsh regulations, anyone could have sat in the seat that I chose, and they could be sick,” she says. “The rooms were only cleaned at certain times throughout the day and you never know what someone else has touched when walking into a building.”

JMU classes were moved online about a week after starting after consultation with the Virginia Department of Health. As of Friday, the university has reported almost 1,400 total coronavirus cases since Aug. 17.

The pandemic has caused a significant mental health impact on students. More students are using VCU support services, according to Jihad Aziz, the interim executive director of VCU University Counseling Services. Students who have sought counseling this semester raise many concerns such as worry over family members and the fear of contracting the coronavirus, Aziz said in an email. The office has implemented some new methods in response, such as offering support groups for students that meet weekly over Zoom.

“We know that students are seeking connection and it’s important that they know that they are not alone during these difficult times,” Aziz says. “We have support groups specifically for students of color, those with chronic health issues, health professional students, and a few others.”

VCU initially experienced a spike in cases when a cluster of 44 positive cases connected to VCU Athletics was reported in the second week of classes. The university has reported a total of 251 cases since Aug. 17.

COVID-19 and the accompanying economic recession have negatively affected the mental health of many people, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. A Kaiser poll taken in mid-July reported that 53% of U.S. adults say their anxiety levels have increased significantly due to stress associated with COVID-19. Adults also reported difficulties sleeping and eating due to worry and stress over the coronavirus.

Rickaya Sykes, a junior theatre performance major at VCU, has a different perspective on how staying inside has affected her mental health. She considers herself an extrovert, but says that prolonged periods indoors have improved her concentration and time management.

“I’m able to relax knowing that I don’t want to go out because of the virus,” she says. “I can stay in and cook, I can watch movies, and I don’t feel pressured to be on the go all the time. I find it soothing to not have plans to go anywhere.”

According to the CDC, taking time to relax and unwind can be a good way to cope with stress during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like Sykes, Emory also is taking time to relax. When the call of his guitar becomes too loud to ignore, he puts down the books and picks it up.

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Virginia Board of Education honors HCPS as a ‘School Division of Innovation’

Fifteen of the commonwealth’s 132 school divisions were named “School Divisions of Innovation.” The divisions were recognized for “designing and implementing alternatives to traditional instructional practices and school structures” in order to promote learning, readiness for college and careers, and good citizenship.

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Henrico County Public Schools has been recognized for its educational innovation by the Virginia Board of Education. Fifteen of the commonwealth’s 132 school divisions were named “School Divisions of Innovation.” The divisions were recognized for “designing and implementing alternatives to traditional instructional practices and school structures” in order to promote learning, readiness for college and careers, and good citizenship.

In announcing HCPS’ designation, the state Board cited two HCPS academic programs that give students a greater role in their education:

  • Giving students access to real-time data, as well as “formative feedback” opportunities to promote and measure their knowledge and skills.
  • Implementing a plan for HCPS students at all grade levels to create and use “learner portfolios” of their work. The portfolios enable students to track their own progress toward college, careers, and citizenship, using the state’s “Profile of a Virginia Graduate” as a guide.

School divisions retain the designation for three years. To earn it, local school boards must submit a plan showing how their school divisions met the requirements. Winning school divisions must also submit an annual report to the Virginia Department of Education showing how they are making progress toward the goals described in their plans. The designations were authorized by the General Assembly in 2017. This the first year they have been presented.

“I think it is fair to say that innovation has never been more important in public education than today as schools across the commonwealth and nation focus on improving distance learning in the face of a pandemic, while addressing inequities in opportunities and outcomes,” Daniel Gecker, Virginia Board of Education president, said in a news release. “I congratulate the leaders of all [15] school divisions for creating innovative plans to address the challenges in their schools and engage their students in deeper learning across the curriculum.”

HCPS has implemented a variety of new programs in recent years. In 2017 HCPS adapted the Profile of a Virginia Graduate to create the localized “Henrico Learner Profile.” The Henrico Learner Profile is a common blueprint for the knowledge, skills, attributes, and experiences Henrico students should develop during their HCPS career in order to become life-ready. The school division has also emphasized the “deeper learning” academic model that promotes a more active role for students in their education. Find out more about the Henrico Learner Profile at http://blogs.henrico.k12.va.us/hlp.

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College Greek life priorities change in the face of COVID-19 

Virginia-based student sororities and fraternities are using Zoom to recruit new members. Some of these organizations believe the challenge of social distancing has strengthened bonds amongst each other as well as their philanthropy efforts.

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By Megan Lee

There are no dodgeball games, cookouts or other rushing events at Virginia Commonwealth University’s campus in Richmond, but fraternities and sororities are still recruiting new brothers and sisters.

The Greek chapters at VCU, and many other Virginia schools, are using Zoom to recruit new members. Some fraternities and sororities believe the challenge of social distancing has strengthened bonds amongst each other as well as their philanthropy efforts.

“Not being able to meet in-person this semester as a whole chapter has been hard, but it has given us more time to focus on our priorities,” said John Rudolph, VCU Pi Kappa Alpha recruitment chair. “Those being our grades, community service and philanthropy.”

VCU’s fraternities and sororities have given around 8,400 hours of time to charities in the last academic year, said LaDarius Thompson, associate director of Civic Engagement and Fraternity and Sorority Life at VCU.

VCU Pi Kappa Alpha is finding alternative methods for their usual events like Bowling Buddy, community clean-ups and food drives, according to Rudolph. Rudolph said the organization is preparing virtual fundraisers using Instagram and Venmo for its annual Fireman’s Challenge, benefitting the Evans-Haynes Burn Center in Richmond.

Bingo donation boards, orders of Campus Cookies, and raffles are just a few of the virtual fundraising challenges Virginia Tech Kappa Alpha sorority are circulating through Instagram and Snapchat stories.

Mojdeh Nourbakhsh, Panhellenic director of risk at Virginia Tech, said that most of its fraternity and sorority causes “are in greater need now more than ever” due to the pandemic.

Kappa Alpha and Kappa Delta at Virginia Tech are raffling Airpods and a TV on social media to fundraise for NRV CARES, a nonprofit advocating for children involved in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court proceedings.

William & Mary Kappa Sigma President Danny Driscoll said the chapter has raised $600 worth of food this semester for the Williamsburg House of Mercy, a local homeless shelter, and plans to raise another $10,000 over this academic year for philanthropy while following COVID-19 guidelines.

These philanthropy efforts are sometimes overshadowed by the notorious social life fraternities and sororities can bring to college campuses. But these social and recruiting events play a large role in establishing the sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that is an integral part of the organizations, Driscoll said.

Nourbakhsh said that when recruiting in person, “you get a better feel of their energy and how they would benefit your chapter best.”

Since most of these in-person events cannot happen, many Greek leadership boards decided to decrease semester fees.

“I think it’s so wrong to charge someone $300 when what are they really getting besides to say, ‘I’m in Kappa Sigma?’” Driscoll said.

 Although rectangles of faces on a Zoom call have replaced real life meetings, there is no substitute for the brothers and sisters that live together — a common standard for many fraternities and sororities.

Students have tested positive in Virginia Tech’s Kappa Delta house, said Claudia Wrenn, the sorority’s vice president of membership.

Wrenn said that the organization’s positive students were quarantined off campus until they were well. She said that resident assistants conduct walk-throughs of all on-campus Greek housing, ensuring that masks are worn at all times in common areas and social distancing measures are in place.

Potential issues arise in off-campus housing, where universities do not have much control.

Thompson said that VCU, the Interfraternity Council and VCU Police have met with sororities and fraternities to reiterate state orders and find ways to prevent COVID-19 within Greek-populated houses.

Some of the Greek chapters that ignored college COVID-19 guidelines have suffered the consequences. Radford University suspended the Iota Zeta chapter of its Theta Chi fraternity for not following health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to The Roanoke Times.

James Madison University also brought Harrisonburg to the top of a USA Today list of college towns with the worst U.S. COVID-19 outbreaks. Twenty percent of JMU students participate in Greek organizations, according to the university’s Fraternity and Sorority Life page.

There are no confirmed links between JMU Greek life and the school’s COVID-19 cases, but Driscoll said that people are connecting the two.

“We don’t want to be the scapegoats that they’re making Greek life into at JMU right now,” Driscoll said.

About 800,000 undergraduate students participated in Greek life across the country in 2018, but VCU Pi Kappa Alpha and William & Mary Kappa Sigma have seen lower recruitment numbers than usual with this year’s freshman class. Virginia Tech Kappa Delta is anticipating even lower numbers for spring recruitment.

Driscoll said Kappa Sigma has not reached half of the number of potential new members he would typically like to have at this point in the semester.

However, he said the unique challenges of this year have created a space for a different bond amongst the incoming class as they “navigate the pandemic together.” Driscoll decided to have a “year-long pledge class” for the 2020-2021 school year to create a longer acclimation period for potential recruits and a greater reach to interested students.

As fraternities and sororities reevaluate chapter goals, they also have time to reflect on Greek life’s impact beyond the college campus, Nourbakhsh said.

Nourbakhsh serves on a national committee created by the National Panhellenic Conference to address underlying racism and noninclusive policies within Greek life.

“There is so much work to be done in our country and starting off with organizations like Greek life and fixing systemic issues is a great start to changing the nation’s perceptions and culture,” Nourbakhsh said.

Students said they are eager to return to regular life.

“Coming from a pandemic and going back to normalcy, whatever normalcy will be, is going to benefit participation, loyalty, interest in these fraternities and sororities because people miss it,” Driscoll said.

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