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College students reflect on COVID-19 anniversary: ‘I’ve grown up’

One year ago, students at several Virginia universities were on spring break when they received notice they would not return to campus. Students said the past year has been devastating and disorienting, but they have also grown from the experience. 

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By Anya Sczerzenie

Shayla McCartney remembers where she was when the pandemic closed her university.

“It was spring break,” said McCartney, a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “I was at home with my mom, we were marathoning ‘Gilmore Girls.’ We got the email that said ‘don’t come back.’”

McCartney said she was upset at the news.

“I had plans,” she said. “I had people I wanted to see.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the lives of more than half a million Virginia college students, including McCartney’s.

“My mental health plummeted, and I didn’t get to see friends,” McCartney said. “I had to come to terms with how to be alone this year.”

The pandemic has impacted lives globally. For young people around the world the coronavirus disrupted their education, jobs and social lives. Many universities and K-12 schools switched to online learning. Some students left campuses to live with their families, while others stayed in on-campus or off-campus housing while taking classes online.

Virginia’s first case of COVID-19 was announced on March 7— with the first death announced a week later on March 14.

VCU junior Yonathan Mesfun was at his student apartment in Richmond when he received the announcement spring break was extended and in-person classes would move online.

“I got everything, packed up, and headed home,” said Mesfun, who lives in Northern Virginia. “I was just thinking about when it would end, honestly.”

VCU biology major Sellas Habte-Mariam was picking her sister up from track practice when she saw the email that announced the school’s closure.

“My dad had been scaring me the whole time,” Habte-Mariam said. “He said ‘you’re not going back to school.’”

The sophomore said that she spent much of the quarantine period re-reading books. “My favorite is ‘Little Women,’” she said.

Habte-Mariam said adjusting to online classes was difficult.

A survey of over 1,000 Virginia college students by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia found that 76% reported challenges to their mental health during the first months of the pandemic. Another survey of more than 2,000 students at Texas A&M University showed that 71% reported increased stress and anxiety levels. Only 43% said they were able to cope with this stress.

Clinical depression increased 90% among college-aged young adults in the first few months of the pandemic, according to a recently published study. The students’ screen time more than doubled, socialization decreased by over half, and average steps taken declined from 10,000 to 4,600 per day.

College students in the Southeastern U.S. reported higher levels of mood disorder symptoms, stress, and alcohol use during the spring 2020 semester, according to another survey. These returned to pre-pandemic levels by the fall.

Some students faced unique challenges during the pandemic— including international students attending colleges away from their home country.

Sailor Miao, a student from China, returned to his home country and started his first semester at the College of William & Mary online. Miao said the 12-hour time difference made attending class difficult.

“I had to wake up at 2 a.m. for class,” Miao said. “I decided to return to the U.S. because I couldn’t complete another semester online.”

Miao, a political science and government major, said that the pandemic allowed him to finally spend time with his parents.

“I’d been living with a host family for four years,” said Miao, who attended high school in Alabama through an international exchange program. “When I went back to China, I missed graduation. I was the valedictorian of my class, so it was hard.”

Adjusting to online learning was also difficult for students in hands-on majors, such as arts and lab sciences.

George Mason University sophomore Chandler Herr recalled being upset when his school announced it would be closing. He went back to GMU to pack his belongings, then returned home.

“I was disappointed, because I was supposed to work on film sets when I got back,” Herr said. “I was wondering how I could even get a grade for some of my hands-on film classes.”

Herr, a film and video studies major, said he and his professors “mostly gave up” during that spring semester. Remote learning meant the events and hands-on projects “couldn’t be done,” he said.

“We were just flabbergasted to have it all happen,” Herr said. “It was surreal.”

Students have lost jobs, internships and job offers. Many say they expect to learn less at age 35 than previously anticipated, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Almost half of the students SCHEV surveyed reported concern over employment.

One recent win for college students will be their first stimulus check. University students whose parents claim them as dependents did not receive stimulus checks during the early months of the pandemic. The American Rescue Plan, a federal stimulus package which was signed into law on March 11, will allow college students who are dependents to claim the upcoming $1,400 stimulus checks.

The number of daily vaccines given out in Virginia has risen since December. The state has administered almost 2 million first doses of the vaccine and almost 1 million of the second dose. College students usually fall into the lowest-priority group, and many won’t be vaccinated until late spring or early summer. Cases of COVID-19 in Virginia have been trending downward since early February.

Many campuses around the state have reopened with coronavirus testing and new procedures in place.

Kim Case is the director for faculty success at VCU. She oversees the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence, which promotes faculty development. The CTLE pivoted quickly last spring and helped prepare instructors to launch remote classes. Case said that she sees hope on the horizon after a year of helping colleagues navigate virtual learning.

“We were all pretty stressed in March 2020 and had no idea how long we would be apart,” she said. “At this point, I am much more hopeful about the future in terms of getting back on campus.”

Shayla McCartney said this year was disorienting, but it helped her grow.

“I’m only just now feeling kind of comfortable,” McCartney said. “I’ve grown up a little bit. I do my schoolwork a lot more.”

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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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Ridge Elementary’s Erin Rettig named Virginia’s 2021 Elementary School Counselor of the Year

Rettig was surprised by Henrico County Public Schools leaders and members of her family at an April 30 announcement at Ridge. She will be recognized at the Virginia School Counselor Association’s annual conference in October.

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The Virginia School Counselor Association has named Erin Rettig, a school counselor at Ridge Elementary School, its Elementary School Counselor of the Year. Rettig was surprised by Henrico County Public Schools leaders and members of her family at an April 30 announcement at Ridge. She will be recognized at the Virginia School Counselor Association’s annual conference in October.

This is the second straight year the award has been presented to an HCPS school counselor. Last year Lila Hiltz of Donahoe Elementary School won the statewide honor.

“I love anything that brings attention to Ridge,” said Rettig. “It’s a very special school. It has a great school climate, it’s very inclusive. We have students from all different backgrounds and staff from different backgrounds … I love being at a school where all are welcome.

“I was very surprised … I really didn’t think about the nomination after it was submitted. I have always had the mentality that it’s students over everything — what’s best for them is the priority. So I really wasn’t doing anything different or trying to earn an award. I’m very thankful that they honored me and it really affirms the important work I’m doing at Ridge Elementary.”

Originally from Virginia Beach, Rettig joined the staff at Ridge in 2004 after earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from James Madison University and a master’s degree in school counseling from Virginia Commonwealth University. In 2020, she earned certification in school counseling from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the profession’s highest mark of accomplishment.

The annual awards for elementary and secondary school counselor of the year are based on implementation of a comprehensive school counseling program and the American School Counselor Association’s guiding national model.

In naming her the commonwealth’s elementary school winner, the Virginia School Counseling Association said, “Your application and letters of recommendation clearly showed that you not only support the national standards for school counseling within [your school division], but also advocate for the profession throughout your community. Your dedication to your students and increasing efforts at collaboration with fellow educators are admired and appreciated!”

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PHOTOS: University of Richmond celebrates in-person graduations

The University of Richmond awarded more than 1,100 degrees during a series of in-person, school-specific ceremonies May 7th through 9th.

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The University of Richmond awarded more than 1,100 degrees during a series of in-person, school-specific ceremonies May 7th through 9th.

The University awarded the following degrees:

  • 783 undergraduate bachelor’s degrees from the School of Arts & Sciences, Robins School of Business, and Jepson School of Leadership Studies,
  • 32 bachelor’s degrees and 95 master’s degrees, through the School of Professional & Continuing Studies,
  • 25 MBA degrees through the Robins School of Business,
  • and 137 juris doctor degrees from the Richmond School of Law.

The University of Richmond provided an in-person, residential educational opportunity for the entire 2020-21 academic year. Most students completed their classes in person with about 300 studying remotely.

From Chicago to Amsterdam and San Francisco to London, graduating seniors are heading to jobs and graduate schools around the world. The class of 2021 has secured jobs at highly-coveted companies and organizations, including Tesla, Teach for America, and the U.S. State Department. Students are continuing their education at some of the world’s premiere graduate institutions, including Yale, Harvard, and Oxford.

By the Numbers

  • The Class of 2021 includes 63 international students who represent 24 countries.
  • More than 230 students in the School of Arts & Sciences conducted undergraduate research in the arts, social sciences, humanities, and sciences.
  • The Robins School of Business’ Student Managed Investment Fund’s growth and value fund grew to a combined value of more than $1M this year, the first time the fund has hit this milestone since it was established in 1993. This year was also the first that Robins School students will graduate from UR with a business analytics concentration.
  • 22% of law school graduates earned the Carrico Center Pro Bono Certificate for completing 120 hours of service throughout their three years, collectively performing more than 6,000 hours of service.
  • The 81 members of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies Class of 2021 logged about 26,000 hours fulfilling their course service-learning requirements and Jepson internships. Three seniors were also named Jepson Scholars and awarded full scholarships to pursue one-year master’s programs at the University of Oxford.
  • For their capstone projects, Master of Nonprofit Studies students in the School of Professional & Continuing Studies conducted more than 2,800 hours of original research, engaging a wide range of nonprofit and civil society stakeholders in the Richmond area, throughout the U.S., and in Afghanistan.
  • Even with fewer study abroad experiences available in 2020 and 2021 due to travel limitations related to the pandemic, 61.7% (483 students) from the class of 2021 completed study abroad, research, and internship programs around the world with university support. Some of these experiences were virtual.
  • According to the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, 27 graduating Bonner Scholars logged 23,457 hours of service throughout their four years.

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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.

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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.

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