The pandemic has forced West Virginia University to ease into the fall semester.
WVU President E. Gordon Gee, in an open letter to the “West Virginia University Family,” announced a phased return to campus. Freshmen, graduate, and professional students will have on-campus classes, while instruction for most upper-level undergraduate students will be online or a hybrid.
This will be mind-numbingly complicated. With 27,000 students, more than 3,000 faculty and staff, and over 380 degree programs, attempting this modified opening during a pandemic will be like trying to dock an aircraft carrier at Cheat Lake.
This reboot is so complicated that Gee asked for “patience as our colleges and schools make these decisions” about how to deliver instruction.
Talking with Gee, you get the impression he wanted to try to have school as close to normal as possible this fall with massive virus testing, masks for everyone and social distancing. However, Governor Justice expressed his concern directly to University officials about the potential health threat of a regular reopening.
Justice’s view was backed up by the University’s health experts, who worried that the campus and the Morgantown community could be enveloped by the virus. The surge in positive cases over just a few days earlier this month linked to several bars in Morgantown was a cautionary tale for all.
A full opening of the University followed by a spike in cases could mean the worst case scenario—more people sick, potential fatalities and a shutdown of the campus. The gradual opening gives WVU latitude—hopefully, spikes will be smaller and more easily contained and if it goes well, all students can return to campus.
“If we take these precautions now, we can work toward having everyone back on campus as quickly as possible,” Gee said.
There is a significant “x” factor in all of this. Thousands of sophomores, juniors and seniors have signed apartment leases for the year. They will return to Morgantown next month even though their classes will be largely online.
The greater University community, which is blended in with Morgantown, will still have thousands of people moving into town and mixing with the population.
Gee is counting on students to do their part to keep themselves and others safe. “I know we can get through this if we hold ourselves accountable and are respectful of each other,” Gee said.
I suspect he wrote that with his fingers crossed. He prefers to treat students as adults and expects them to act accordingly. However, if the past is prologue, we know some students will be blissfully ignorant of best health practices.
The University’s plan is not an elegant solution, but an untamed virus does not allow for perfection. WVU, like every other institution, business, church, community, and family, is just trying to figure out a way forward.