On Tuesday August 24th, University of Virginia students and faculty returned to Grounds for the 2021-2022 academic year. For many, it was the first time back in Charlottesville since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. After a year and a half of virtual learning, Grounds swelled with enthusiastic students ready to—once again—take in everything that makes the traditional UVA college experience so unique.
According to the University, in-person programming at full capacity was able to resume in large part because of a schoolwide student vaccine mandate. The measure was put in place to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 within the community. Almost ninety-seven percent of students showed proof of full vaccination in the weeks leading up to the beginning of the school year. 238 students who did not report being vaccinated or did not submit exemption application forms were disenrolled for the semester.
Even with very high vaccination rates amongst students and faculty, UVA still implemented a temporary indoor mask mandate for all students and faculty, regardless of vaccination status, until September 6th. Furthermore, students on Grounds who were approved for vaccine exemptions, either for religious or medical reasons, are still subject to weekly testing, social distancing, and a mandatory indoor and outdoor mask mandate for the entirety of the semester. These measures were put in place based on advice taken “from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the Virginia Department of Health, and UVA’s own world-class public health experts” who continue to monitor the Delta variant and other infectious variants of the virus.
Optimism among University officials is in stark contrast to this past spring semester, when all libraries and gyms were shut down from February 16th to February 26th because of 117 new cases and 376 total active cases reported on the fifteenth of February. 3,720 people were tested on the same day. The next day, 4,228 people were tested and 230 cases were reported. Even though nearly all classes were already held online for the entire school year, those still living on Grounds were subject to strict measures like wearing masks and six-feet social distancing at all times, sitting with no more than one or two other people in dining halls, gathering in limited numbers outdoors, and complying with weekly prevalence testing. “COVID ambassadors” roamed Grounds to enforce University-mandated measures, and prevalence testing included a strike system that could result in suspension. Students that tested positive for COVID-19 were placed in quarantine and isolation dorms.
Even with masks in class and podiums topped with plexiglass shields, the 2021-2022 school year began on a much more normal note. Students and faculty, most of whom chose not to wear masks anywhere other than in the indoor spaces where they are required, seemed cheerful for the return to in-person learning and hopeful for an improved rest of the Fall 2021 semester. There is currently no indication that the University will pivot on any of its semester plans.