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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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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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Parents are changing their minds on in-person school – in most cases, there are no other options

As the Delta variant of COVID-19 takes foot, some parents who chose an in-person option for their kids are rethinking that. But there may not be an alternative in some districts.

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Families with Richmond Public Schools had until June 1 to choose between enrolling virtually or attending classes in person. At that point in the summer, COVID-19 vaccines were widely available to adults, new cases had dropped to less than 200 a day, and almost no one had heard of delta, the highly transmissible variant that now accounts for virtually all new infections across the U.S.

“It seemed like we were not at the end of things, but that there was an end coming,” Yeager said. Her four children — none of whom are old enough to be vaccinated — had managed a year of remote school fairly well. But the encouraging outlook convinced Yeager to enroll them in-person.

By the time cases began climbing, it was too late to change her mind. The vast majority of Virginia school divisions, including Richmond, required families to make a decision about the upcoming semester in late May or early June. Virtual enrollment is now closed, and many are denying an influx of requests from parents and students who changed their minds.

Yeager is one of hundreds of families stuck with face-to-face learning even as a third coronavirus surge casts a pall over the school year. Some districts have already quarantined dozens — or hundreds — of students after COVID-19 exposures. Earlier this week, the Virginia Department of Health urged Amherst County to temporarily close all its secondary schools after an outbreak in the district.

But local divisions are limited in how widely, and for how long, they can close schools thanks to a state law mandating in-person instruction (passed in the early, and optimistic, days of Virginia’s vaccine rollout). Late last summer, a spike in cases spurred the majority of districts to reopen with hybrid or fully remote learning plans. This year, with new infections reaching even higher levels, they don’t have that option. 

Nor are they required to offer remote instruction. “While school divisions need to provide five days of in-person learning to any family who wants it for their students in the fall, school districts are not obligated to provide a virtual option for all students,” Fairfax County reminded families in May. The vast majority of them — 110 out of 132 local divisions — are using Virtual Virginia, a state-run program with its own teachers and curriculum.

Ten districts aren’t offering any virtual option at all, according to Charles Pyle, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Education. And some divisions providing their own virtual courses have even tighter restrictions. Fairfax County, for example, is limiting remote learning to students with medical needs documented by a licensed health professional. The deadline to enroll in the program was May 28, and a little more than 400 students, out of roughly 180,000 across the district, are participating.

“Family health/medical conditions are not considered for this program and eligibility is not extended to siblings or other students in a household,” spokesperson Kathleen Miller wrote in a statement on Friday. “Enrolling additional students would require additional staffing, which has already been a significant challenge.” 

Providing both in-person and virtual learning, as many schools have done over the course of the pandemic, have created escalating burdens for local divisions — even with millions of dollars in federal aid. In addition to teacher burnout, administrators have struggled to find enough staff to fill instructional and support positions, especially with regular exposures forcing many into quarantine. In a presentation to lawmakers last fall, state Superintendent James Lane described staffing as one of the biggest challenges facing Virginia’s schools.

Those ongoing needs, combined with the state mandate, offer few incentives for schools to continue providing their own remote learning options. Brian Mott, the executive director for Virtual Virginia, said enrollment in the program was open to any student until their district’s deadline. But he also said planning needs made it difficult to accommodate a wave of later registrations.

“We’ve got to make sure we have the appropriate staff to support them,” Mott said. “The other reason is communication. Students don’t just enroll and start the next day. We need to be setting them up and supporting them as soon as possible.”

Many local districts are also limiting virtual enrollment to students who can show they were successful with the modality — another process that takes time, he added. Despite the division-wide policies to curb late registrations, though, that’s exactly what’s happening across the state. Mott said there have been more than 1,200 enrollment requests from individual schools in recent weeks, most of which involve multiple students.

Virtual Virginia is offering a “limited number” of late enrollment slots, with a priority on students with medical needs, students from military families, or transfers who entered a school division after the cut-off date, Pyle said. But some individual districts are seeing even higher demand.

The waitlist for Henrico’s Virtual Academy now sits at more than 3,000 students — an increase of around 800 compared to two weeks prior, the Henrico Citizen reported

The district is attempting to hire more teachers to accommodate the waitlist, according to the Citizen. Other divisions, though, are simply denying the requests.

“Students who have not chosen the virtual option will not be permitted to change to virtual,” said Diana Gulotta, a spokesperson for Prince William County Schools, the second-largest division in the state. “Those with documented health conditions can apply for homebound services.” 

Unlike Fairfax County, which is Virginia’s largest school district, Prince William isn’t currently requiring its staff to be vaccinated.

Richmond is another division mandating vaccines for its staff, and Yeager said that’s provided her with some degree of comfort. But while she understands the constraints facing local school districts, she’s frustrated — like many families — over the lack of flexibility amid a constantly changing pandemic.  

Delta has changed the conversation, she said. Research on earlier variants indicated that children were less susceptible to COVID-19 than adults and displayed milder symptoms when they contracted the virus. But the rise of delta has corresponded with worrying reports of increasing pediatric cases and hospitalizations, especially in hard-hit areas. Ballad Health, for example — the primary hospital system in far southwestern Virginia — has reported several COVID-19 admissions in their pediatric ICU.

“We are seeing children dying, though I know, intellectually, the chances of that happening are very small,” Yeager said. It’s still not clear if delta presents any more of a risk to children than previous variants. Public health experts have pointed out that pediatric hospitalizations are still the same proportion of the total, but that the overall number is rising given the higher transmissibility of the variant. 

Right now, though, delta poses the greatest risk to the unvaccinated — a population that still includes children under 12. Authorization for that age group isn’t expected before the end of this year, according to some federal officials. And many parents aren’t willing to take the risk.

“I would love to be wrong,” Yeager said. “But delta is so terribly infectious. Kids can’t be masked all the time. I don’t see how it’s going to be other than … I can’t even think of a polite way to put it.”

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: [email protected] Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Education

University of Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab receives three national awards for Southern Journey Story Map Project

ESRI, the industry standard in the field of mapping technology, awarded the DSL the Best Cartography award and the International Cartographic Association and International Map Industry Association Recognition of Excellence in Cartography award.

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The Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond has received three awards for the story map project Southern Journey: The Migrations of the American South, 1790-2010. A story map is a digital project that combines text, interactive maps, and other multimedia content for storytelling.

ESRI, the industry standard in the field of mapping technology, awarded the DSL the Best Cartography award and the International Cartographic Association and International Map Industry Association Recognition of Excellence in Cartography award. The project team includes Justin Madron, GIS project manager, and analyst; Nathanial Ayers, visualization and web designer; and Ed Ayers, Tucker-Boatwright Professor of Humanities.

This year, judges selected award winners from more than 350 map projects they determined best-exhibited excellence in all aspects of map design and cartographic production.

“It’s an honor to be selected for these awards among such stiff competition,” said Madron. “This project allowed us to combine the best tools used in mapping and digital storytelling, and the interactive maps and animations produce a user-friendly way to interact with the data and information.”

The team built this project as a complement to Ed Ayers’ latest book of the same name. Madron and Nathanial Ayers also created the more than 60 maps for the printed book.

“Justin and Nathaniel invented ways to bring printed pages to life, revealing the interwoven complex causes of the ebbs and flows that have shaped the southeastern United States,” said Ed Ayers. As the award committee put it, “The dominant eye-catching topaz-and-turquoise honeycomb maps are highly effective in intentionally addressing the ambiguity of inconsistent geographic areas over time.”

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School Board Voted to Require Covid Vaccination for all RPS Teachers, Staff, Contractors, Partners, and Volunteers

The vote was 8-1 in favor of the mandated vaccination.

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Last night the Richmond School board voted 8-1 in favor of Superintendent Jason Kamras’ push that all RPS teachers, staff, contractors, partners, and volunteers be required to get the Covid-19 vaccine. The deadline for the vaccination is October 1st approximately three weeks after the start of most schools. Employees can get an exemption from the vaccination for medical or religious reasons.

The lone dissenting vote was Johnathan Young of the 4th District. He feels it’s an issue of trust, “We consistently portray a messaging that we don’t trust them” he stated.

Just last week the entire 4th grade class of Patrick Henry School was quarantined due to 9 positive Covid-19 cases.

You can read RPS’ Health and Safety Measures for Fall 2021 In-Person Instruction. The document outlines all the measures including mask-wearing, physical distancing, HVAC improvements, and more. Below is the section concerning vaccination. It doesn’t reflect the recent board vote mandating vaccination.

Vaccination is the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Vaccinating staff, and students when eligible for vaccination, is a critical layer of prevention and protection for all. Achieving high levels of vaccination among eligible students, teachers and staff is one of the most critical strategies to help schools safely operate.

  • Pending Board approval, RPS will require all staff to show proof of vaccination by October 1.
  • For those RPS staff who are not yet vaccinated, please check with your healthcare provider or find a location to get a free COVID-19 vaccine at vaccinate.virginia.gov. Additionally, RPS will continue to partner with RCHD/VDH to hold vaccination events.
  • Medical and religious exemptions will be granted on a case-by-case basis. To inquire about these exemptions, employees should email the Talent Office at [email protected]; anyone granted an exemption will need to provide proof of a negative COVID test on a weekly basis.
  • Employees who do not meet the October 1 deadline (save for those who are granted an exemption) will be subject to progressive discipline, including loss of employment.
  • The vaccine mandate will also apply to contractors, partners, and volunteers. They will receive additional information about this directly from the Talent Office.
  • While students are not included in the vaccine mandate, we strongly encourage all RPS students aged 12 and older to get vaccinated.

The Richmond and Henrico Health Districts are continuing to host free walk-up vaccination events. You can find the full list as well as a way to find local pharmacies that are vaccinating here.

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