By KAITLYN SMYTH & KHALIA DELANCY
With all UMW students and staff eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, UMW administrators have high hopes for a more normal fall 2021 semester.
Jeff McClurken, one of UMW’s COVID coordinators, reflected on what campus will look like in the fall in terms of gatherings, in-person classes and mask-wearing. McClurken believes that, with the right precautions, UMW will be able to get COVID under control over the summer.
“In the short term, that means continuing to practice MMDC,” said McClurken. “Longer term, the answer is widespread vaccinations to the point where we reach herd immunity. There are many months before the fall, and the fall experience will depend on conditions at the time. Our responses will be developed, as they have been all along, in consultation with health units at the local and state level as well as federal health guidelines for colleges and universities.”
McClurken outlined his hopes for the fall semester.
“We are planning for a fall semester that is much more like fall 2019 than fall 2020,” he said. “That includes most classes being in-person and without significant social distancing. It will likely include masks still in many public settings, but we will likely see significant increases in gathering size and in what people are able to do in person.”
According to the Virginia Department of Health COVID website, there have been a total of 635,552 COVID cases and 10,472 deaths in the state as of April 11. Fredericksburg reported 1,498 cases and 22 deaths thus far. UMW will be basing their opening procedures off of COVID conditions.
“On one level, the university will be looking at the same conditions as we have been – cases numbers, test positivity, hospitalizations, access to needed supplies, commitment to behavior that mitigates risk – but the vaccine adds a new component and the more people who get vaccinated, the more likely it is that we will be able to have a fall that is closer to our pre-pandemic lives on and off campus,” said McClurken.
As of April 9, all faculty, staff and students are vaccine-eligible. Anna Billingsley sent an email on April 8 with a link to sign up.
“We strongly encourage everyone to get vaccinated. Widespread vaccination is a key part of reopening and getting to the post-pandemic world where we can return to many of those traditional college experiences,” said McClurken.
When asked if UMW will be requiring students to get the vaccine for in-person classes, McClurken said, “At the moment we are strongly encouraging it. There are conversations going on at the state and federal level about requiring the vaccine, but those are still in preliminary stages from what we understand.”
University President Troy Paino also shared how important getting the vaccine and remaining vigilant are to keeping cases low.
“Until enough people get the vaccine, we still have this dangerous virus and variants of the virus out there,” said Paino. “While we all see light at the end of the tunnel, we do not want to let our guard down these last few weeks.”
According to the CDC, 34.5 percent of the total population in the United States has at least one dose of the vaccine and 20.5 percent of the total population is fully vaccinated.
Scotti Mullen, a junior economics major, plans to return to campus for the fall.
“I feel like COVID has taken a piece of my college experience, and I’m ready to reclaim it,” said Mullen. “I am ready to have classes in-person again, as I feel I learn better that way, reunite with friends and re-enter the UMW community. I do plan to still wear masks and be safe, but I’m excited to be independent again.”
Freshman Emily Hemphill was present on campus during fall 2020 but at home for the spring 2021 semester. Hemphill hopes that this upcoming semester will give her the opportunity to have a more real college experience.
“I felt very isolated in the fall,” said Hemphill. “I definitely missed out on having my classes in person, joining clubs and meeting people. I decided I did not want to spend another semester alone in my dorm, so I came home. I am planning on coming back for the fall semester. I am looking forward to coming back in hopes that I can get a better idea of what UMW is really like during normal times.”
Other students are also excited to return to campus.
“I am excited, I have Attention Deficit Disorder and it is quite hard to pay attention and keep up with work when not in school,” said sophomore biology major Caitlyn Knittig. “It also just feels more special being in person, I feel like I am missing out on friendships I could be making and especially connections with professors. I find it much harder to stand out and to receive accommodations, so I am extremely excited for in person classes.”
Senior English Major Junior Beau Wentz is also enthusiastic about returning to campus.
“I’m excited as f—-,” Wentz said.“Especially considering vaccination rates are skyrocketing. I feel that it’ll be safe to return in the fall because of falling COVID-19 rates and rising vaccination rates. Given that UMW has been doing well with MMDC and getting students vaccinated, I feel that it can be done safely and swiftly. Also, I feel that because we have been on campus since Fall 2020, I do feel that we will be fine in Fall 2021. On a personal note, I will be a senior this coming academic year. I would like to spend my final year on campus in some form or another.”
Paino is proud of the UMW community for keeping COVID cases on campus low with 73 cumulative cases as of April 8, according to UMW’s COVID 19 dashboard.
“I am very proud of the Mary Washington community and how it has responded to this pandemic,” said Paino. “This community has been a model of responsible, community-minded behavior.”