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.
Graduation plans vary across Virginia universities
College graduations will still look different due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but more Virginia universities are returning to in-person ceremony.
By Sarah Elson
College graduations will still look different due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but more Virginia universities are returning to in-person ceremony.
Graduations will be held online, in person or a hybrid format. Gov. Ralph Northam announced last month preliminary guidance for graduation events, which continues to be updated.
“The acceleration of the vaccine program and the decrease in new COVID-19 cases make it safer to ease restrictions on activities like in-person graduations,” Northam stated in March.
Graduation events for K-12 schools and colleges will operate under two sets of guidelines, depending on the date. Graduation events held outdoors before May 15 will be capped at 5,000 people or 30% of the venue capacity, whichever is less. Graduation events held indoors may have up to 500 people, or 30% of the venue capacity, whichever is less.
More people can attend graduations held on or after May 15. The governor’s orders allow an increase to 50% of venue capacity or 5,000 people at outdoor graduations. Indoor events cannot exceed either 50% venue capacity or 1,000 persons.
Attendees must wear masks and follow other guidelines and safety protocols to ensure social distancing.
Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond will hold a university-wide commencement ceremony online on May 15, according to a statement the university released last month. Individual departments can decide whether to hold in-person graduation.
VCU College of Humanities and Sciences will hold three in-person graduation ceremonies outdoors on May 15. The ceremonies will be held rain or shine on an outdoor field used for sports. Guests are not allowed to attend, but the ceremonies will be livestreamed.
Britney Simmons, a senior VCU mass communications major graduating in May, has concerns about attending an in-person event.
“I’d prefer that graduation is online,” Simmons stated in a text message. “I’m still uncomfortable with large gatherings and wouldn’t feel comfortable with me or any of my family attending and putting their health at risk.”
Federal health agencies called for a pause of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine this month due to reports of blood clots in some individuals who received it. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration panel late last week recommended restarting the J&J vaccinations, with an added warning about the risk of rare blood clots.
“The university really put its hope in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and that lots of students would be vaccinated by commencement,” said Tim Bajkiewicz, an associate professor of broadcast journalism at VCU and the communications director for the American Association of University Professors. “Because of the pause that the CDC put on that vaccine, it really kind of blew a huge hole in those plans.”
Students and faculty originally scheduled to receive the one-dose J&J shot had to temporarily shift to a new timetable with the incremental, two-dose shots that could make it harder for everyone to receive a vaccine by graduation.
VCU spokesman Michael Porter did not respond to multiple requests for comment about any possible problems the university might encounter from that pause of the J&J vaccine.
“The ceremonies are already super stripped-down,” Bajkiewicz said. “But still over this whole thing is a pronounced risk of getting COVID-19.”
Virginia Tech in Blacksburg will have 16 in-person commencement ceremonies by college from May 10 to May 16 at Lane Stadium, the university’s football stadium. Graduating students are required to register and students are allowed to invite up to four guests.
Virginia Tech will also hold a virtual commencement ceremony on May 14.
Sarah Hajzus, a senior industrial and systems engineering major at Virginia Tech, said she would prefer to have graduation in person.
“Small, in-person [graduation], if we were to do it by major I feel like that would be ideal,” Hajzus said.
The University of Virginia in Charlottesville will hold its commencement outdoors on May 21 to May 23 for the class of 2021. Students will walk the lawn and process to Scott Stadium, where each student can have two guests. The class of 2020 will also get a chance to walk and attend a special ceremony, according to U.Va. President Jim Ryan.
Other Virginia universities will hold spring graduation completely online. George Mason University released a statement that its spring commencement will be held virtually. The ceremony is set for Friday, May 14 at 2 p.m.
VCU students and employees are not required, but encouraged, to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Over 43% of the state’s population had received at least one-dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Monday, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
“It is really sad that I won’t be able to have an in-person graduation since I looked forward to having one all four years, but I think everyone’s health is more important than a graduation ceremony,” Simmons stated.
University of Richmond announces new academic programs
The popular Healthcare Studies program is becoming the Health Studies Department; new programming is available in Africana Studies and Data Science/Analytics.
The University of Richmond has announced curriculum changes that will provide new academic opportunities for students and faculty. These changes include the healthcare studies program becoming an independent department and establishing two new program areas: Africana Studies and data science/analytics.
“At the University of Richmond, we seek to educate students in an academically challenging, intellectually vibrant, and collaborative community,” said Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences Patrice Rankine. “To achieve this we must meet the needs of our students and fill in gaps in important fields of study that are necessary to educate our future leaders. These changes will continue advancing that mission.”
Health Studies Department
Healthcare studies was established as a minor in 2007 and quickly grew in popularity with at least 25 students graduating with the minor within five years. Healthcare studies was established as a major in 2012, and by 2015 became the fifth largest A&S major. This fall the program will become the Department of Health Studies to support additional options for faculty and students, specifically related to global health and epidemiology.
“Health-related fields play a central role in the global economy,” said Rankine. “We are uniquely positioned at UR to provide students with a foundation in all areas that comprise the health industry and allied fields, including the ethics and anthropology of healthcare, historical and philosophical analysis, and the humanistic sensibility about health and well-being that comes with the study of literature, philosophy, and other disciplines taught at UR.”
The Department of Health Studies, which will continue to provide students with options to study business, economics, and the health industry, will be chaired by Rick Mayes, an expert in healthcare policy and longtime co-coordinator of the healthcare studies program.
A new Africana Studies program, a focus that reflects initial petitioning from students, has been approved. The program will officially launch in the fall of 2022 with a suite of required courses currently under development, but students wishing to major or minor in Africana Studies can begin taking elective courses in the fall.
“The Africana Studies program offers the depth of humanistic thought, including
philosophical, interpretive, creative, and fine arts, alongside training in the skill sets of the social and natural sciences,” Rankine said.
The home school for the Africana Studies program will be A&S, but students will be able to take elective courses across disciplines, including in the Robins School of Business and the Jepson School of Leadership Studies.
Data Analytics and Data Science
We live in a world increasingly reliant upon data. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts employment in data-related fields will grow by 30% in the next 10 years. UR is now offering students new opportunities related to data analytics and data science, including a data science concentration for computer science and mathematics students, a business analytics concentration for business majors, and a Bachelor of Science in Professional Studies (BSPS) major in data analytics offered through SPCS.
“We are training our students for future careers that, in many cases, have not yet been invented, but we do know that data, and the quantitative, computational analysis of that data will be critically important,” said chemistry professor Carol Parish, the associate provost for academic innovation who is overseeing the data science initiative.
HCPS will hold traditional in-person graduations at Richmond Raceway for the Class of 2021
Henrico County Public Schools seniors will gather in person with their classmates at traditional graduation ceremonies to be held in June. Ceremonies for HCPS’ nine comprehensive high schools and two Advanced Career Education centers will be held June 14-17 at Richmond Raceway, while the graduating class at the Academy at Virginia Randolph will hold its ceremony June 9 at the Virginia Randolph Recreation Area.
Henrico County Public Schools seniors will gather in person with their classmates at traditional graduation ceremonies to be held in June. Ceremonies for HCPS’ nine comprehensive high schools and two Advanced Career Education centers will be held June 14-17 at Richmond Raceway, while the graduating class at the Academy at Virginia Randolph will hold its ceremony June 9 at the Virginia Randolph Recreation Area. The events will conform to all public health requirements for in-person graduations outlined by Gov. Northam in association with an April 1 update to Northam’s Executive Order 72.
Richmond Raceway’s size will enable each school’s graduating seniors to gather as a group and take part in a traditional ceremony, accepting their diplomas in person. The students will process as a class from beneath the grandstands, walk past friends and family in the grandstands and descend to a grassy seating area just across the track. Students will remain 6 feet apart and seats will be spaced accordingly. As is traditional, students will ascend a stage and accept their diplomas.
Each graduating student will receive four tickets for family and friends to attend the ceremony, and each student’s group will sit together as a pod in the raceway’s grandstands, separated from other groups by 6 feet. Professional-quality sound systems and video boards will also be in place to amplify the students’ processional, songs, speeches, and the recognition of each graduate by name as they walk across the stage. Graduations will also be live-streamed at www.henricoschools.us, ensuring that relatives and loved ones can also watch from their computers and mobile devices.
Specific information about each school’s graduation will come from the school’s principals or senior administrators. Information will also be added in coming weeks to HCPS’ Graduations Hub, which is at https://henricoschools.us/graduations/.
HCPS graduation schedule
Virginia Randolph Recreation Area
2175 Mountain Road, Glen Allen, Va. 23060
Wednesday, June 9
- The Academy at Virginia Randolph (7 p.m.)
Richmond Raceway Complex
600 E. Laburnum Ave., Henrico, Va. 23222
Monday, June 14
- Advanced Career Education Centers at Hermitage and Highland Springs (6 p.m.)
Tuesday, June 15
- Henrico High School (10 a.m.)
- Highland Springs High School (2 p.m.)
- Varina High School (6 p.m.)
Wednesday, June 16
- Douglas S. Freeman High School (10 a.m.)
- Deep Run High School (2 p.m.)
- Mills E. Godwin High School (6 p.m.)
Thursday, June 17
- J.R. Tucker High School (10 a.m.)
- Glen Allen High School (2 p.m.)
- Hermitage High School 6 p.m.)
Friday, June 18
- Rain date