WVU announces fall returning plan; requires mandatory COVID testing and masks to be worn on campus

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UPDATE(6/04/20 5:31 p.m.)

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia University has announced that mandatory testing will occur for all students, faculty and staff before returning to campus.

According to the university, students will return to WVU’s three campuses to begin fall classes on Wednesday, August 19.

Students will remain on campus, with no fall break, through November 24, then depart for Thanksgiving Break. The announcement stated that the students will not be not returning to campus for the rest of the fall semester. There will be one week of online instruction following Thanksgiving Break, with finals also conducted online.

According to the release, spring classes will begin on campus on January 19, continuing with no spring break through April 30 and finals on campus from May 3-7.

A separate, phased schedule for staff and faculty to return to campus will be released at a later date, the statement stated.

“We have given careful consideration to the wisdom of returning to campus while the COVID-19 pandemic is still with us,” President Gordon Gee said. “However, it is clear our students want to be with their professors and fellow Mountaineers. We are taking every precaution and making every preparation possible so they can do that safely.”

Under Gee’s direction, the release explained that a steering committee and multiple task forces began developing plans for a fall return in early April. The groups are developing protocols and precautions for personal safety, campus safety, as well as community safety.

Those precautions will include mandatory testing for all students, faculty and staff before returning to campus; requiring masks to be worn while on campus, including in classes; social distancing; increased frequency of cleaning; limits on travel and visitation to campus; and a variety of other actions.

Additionally, all faculty, staff and students will be required to complete an COVID-19 education course prior to August 11.

Rob Alsop, WVU’s vice president for strategic initiatives, said the university will have tens of thousands of free cloth and gator masks for students, staff and faculty. Alsop added that the university will also have around 300,000 surgical masks as well.

Dr. Clay Marsh, WVU’s Vice President and Executive Dean for health sciences who recently served as the coronavirus czar for the state of West Virginia, stressed that personal accountability will be key to keeping campus open this fall.

“West Virginians have done extremely well in flattening the curve of COVID-19. Our actions have saved lives, protected our healthcare providers and achieved some of the best metrics in the United States,” Marsh said. “Our rate of positive tests remains around 2 percent, which is amazing given our neighboring states’ rates are four to 20 times higher.

“But the tricky part will be the Return to Campus, and the most effective way to reopen safely, slow the spread of the virus, protect our campus community and save lives is to wear a mask.”

The campus community will be kept informed over the next two months through E-News, Unews, a new website, and multiple Return to Campus Conversations.

This Monday, June 8, and then every Tuesday thereafter, new information will be released, followed by a Return to Campus Conversation held at 10 a.m. the following Thursday according to officials.

The first Conversation, which will be prerecorded, will be held June 4, and feature Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Rob Alsop; Dean of the School of Public Health Dr. Jeff Coben; Vice President for Talent & Culture Cris DeBord; Dean of Students Corey Farris; Vice President for University Relations & Enrollment Management Sharon Martin; and Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Maryanne Reed.

In a letter to the WVU community today, Gee said, “This is new territory. We may not always have all the answers. Be mindful that public health conditions may change that would redirect our work. Be patient with each other. And together, we will create the best fall experience for our faculty, staff and students.”

Even though plans are to return, the University continues to monitor the situation and consult with public health and government officials in case it needs to change course. Rob Alsop said in a Zoom meeting on Thursday that there are many plans being worked out for what to do if there is a spike in COVID-19 case and that testing is crucial to containing spikes.

Alsop said testing gives the university the best opportunity to identify those who are positive at the start and the ability to isolate them while they receive the necessary medical care they need.

“We are having to move quickly but also put some safeguards in like the amount of PPE, like the testing and those other things both initially and on an ongoing basis so that when do have spikes we can deal with them in intermediate steps and move as aggressively, or as in sort of a precision fashion as we can to move forward with the semester,” Alsop said.

These are some of the many strategies the university is considering to ensure a safe return to campus in the fall and the university will continue to come up with new strategies as time goes by, Alsop said.

“As always, the safety of our students, faculty and staff is paramount,” Gee said. “Therefore, we will be ready to act in their best interests as the challenges unfold.”

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