West Virginia University President Gordon Gee said he has wanted nothing more than a full return of students to campus, but came to accept a scaled-back reopening after Gov. Jim Justice urged caution.
“We heard from him our paramount concern needs to be health and safety,” Gee said today on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
That echoed what Justice said during a briefing late last week when he was asked about colleges reopening. Justice emphasized student and faculty safety, saying West Virginia’s colleges have well thought-out plans.
“I believe with all in me that we need to go back to school as soon as is — and I underline with all in me — as soon as our medical community, as soon as in my gut and in my mind that we have flipped every rock to ensure the parents of these children and all those involved that we can go back to school and go back to school as safely as we possibly can,” Justice said Friday.
“Your governor’s heart and mind is solely behind absolutely assuring you will be taken care of as safely as possible.”
Gee announced Monday that the return to campus will be phased, starting with freshmen and graduate students. Most upper-level undergraduate students are expected to return to campus at a later, undetermined date.
Gee said the change is because of concern among local and state public health officials, as well as university leadership, that a full return to campus in Morgantown would place both the campus and local communities at a greater risk for an increase in positive cases and transmission rates.
If that were to happen, Gee stated in a memo to the university, that would increase the likelihood of having to conduct the entire semester online.
“This way we can assure ourselves that by increasing our distancing that we do not in a month or so that we have to close everything down again,” Gee said today. “This is what we call the dance.”
— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) July 28, 2020
A few weeks ago, Monongalia County — where WVU is located — had been a hotspot for active coronavirus cases. About half of the cases were people between ages 20 and 29, according to the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
Justice ordered a shutdown of bars in the county and later extended his shutdown order.
Active cases in Monongalia County had been about 400 early last week. Today that number had decreased to about 148.
Gee made reference to those circumstances as WVU made its decision.
“We decided that with that spike we needed to be a bit more distancing, so that is really the decision we made,” he said.
“It’s not easy. There’s no one who looks forward to our students returning, our faculty and staff than me.”
The return to classes will begin a week later than originally anticipated, August 26, which is a Wednesday.
Movements into residence halls will also be delayed by a week, from Saturday, Aug. 15 to Saturday, Aug. 22.
Campuses in Beckley (WVU Tech) and Keyser (WVU Potomac State College) will return to campus as originally planned on Aug. 19.
Gee acknowledged that some students are likely to return to Morgantown, even if they are now moving toward online learning. He said he trusts those students to act responsibly and do their part to suppress the spread of virus.
“I have great faith in our students,” he said. “These are 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds, but they’re also adults.”
Students who are learning off-campus will get some financial breaks, although not on tuition.
Students who will be moved from in-person courses to receiving delivery of all courses in an online format will only be charged $220 in student fees, which is $440 less than the standard fee amount. The university says it recognizes that these students are studying remotely while other students will be studying on campus.
For students moving in on Aug. 15 or later, the university will issue a 6.42 percent pro-rata reduction in room and board costs and a 6.36 percent pro-rata reduction in Go 10, Go 13 and Go Anytime dining plan costs to compensate students for the reduced days they will be living in the residence halls and dining on campus due to this change.
On tuition, Gee said WVU’s rate is one of the most competitive in the country. And he said the university aims to provide students an equivalent educational experience whether they’re learning in classrooms or online.
“We will demand our students receive the same type of educational experience. The quality of what our students receive will be the same. It may be online,” he said.
Gee said he hopes the university will be able to return to normal as the months go by. He predicted that could be by next spring, making reference to the possibility of a vaccine or treatment for covid-19.
“I’m very hopeful,” he said. “I do believe we will be back in full measure very soon.”