Virginia Tech President Tim Sands and a core of senior university officials told undergraduate students Thursday that the university stands ready to offer them support as they complete the 2019-20 academic year under extraordinary circumstances.

“This is a crisis that is going to impact everyone in some way, directly or indirectly,” Sands said in his opening remarks. “I’d say the defining word for what we’re experiencing, especially with our students, is ‘disruption.’ Our seniors have missed out on the end of their academic year in Blacksburg, or wherever they were planning to be this last couple of months of their time at Virginia Tech. That’s disappointing for everyone.”

During the 45-minute President’s Town Hall, Sands was joined by Rachel Holloway, vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs; Menah Pratt-Clarke, vice president for strategic affairs and diversity; and Frank Shushok, vice president for student affairs, to discuss issues and answer questions related to the shift to online learning, grading, and academic support amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The following are five takeaways from the conversation. Watch the full video below.

1. The university stands by ready to support its students as they complete their spring classes.

Virginia Tech, like universities around the world, has been forced to quickly pivot from in-person classes to online learning as its students, faculty, and staff observe physical distancing protocols in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That rapid shift has left many students with unanswered questions and no small amount of anxiety. Holloway directed them to the university’s Academic Advising Initiatives website, which links to academic tips and strategies to help students succeed in a virtual world, or suggested they email advising@vt.edu for specific questions. Other online resources are also available, Holloway said, including tutoring, academic coaches, the writing center, librarians, and more.

“We’re helping you navigate this,” Holloway said. “Email still works. My advice there would be to use your subject line wisely. Maybe write ‘Need assistance for’ and name the class.”

Pratt-Clarke said her biggest advice is to “reach out for help.”

“We’ve heard from over 200 students specifically about their financial needs,” Pratt-Clarke said. “We learned that some students were working two or three jobs. Some students were taking 22 hours trying to finish the semester. Some students had gone home to complicated situations with parents and siblings. So we learned a lot about what students are trying to navigate in this short pivot.”

Financial assistance may be available through an emergency fund in the financial aid office, and other resources may come in the future. Additionally, Virginia Tech’s Student Opportunities and Achievement Resources (SOAR) stands available to provide expertise and resources to help students navigate the rest of the academic year and beyond.

2. Virginia Tech leaders expect to make more decisions about the fall semester by June.

University leadership is still deciding how to approach the 2020 fall semester, with regard both to physical distancing and tuition. The Board of Visitors plans to meet in May and June, and Sands said he expects more clarity by then.

“The bottom line is [that] the public health guidelines that emerge as we approach this summer will determine the extent to which fall is in-person,” Sands said. “We really won’t know what fall looks like until early June, and we’re not alone in this. Around early June, we should be able to make some fairly concrete announcements as to what we think the fall will look like.”

Sands also responded to a question from moderator Dawn Jefferies about whether the university will consider discounted tuition if classes remain online.

Sands said that if remote-learning classes continue, “we need to think differently, perhaps, about fees. But I think a good assumption going forward is that tuition rates probably won’t be different. There’s certain fixed costs there, and in fact, online and remote are actually more expensive.”

Sands said he expected the Board of Visitors to discuss the question more at one of its upcoming meetings.

3. Students should hang tight a little longer when it comes to housing decisions.

The university’s decisions regarding the fall semester obviously affect on- and off-campus housing. If the university does resume in-person classes in the fall, Shushok said it will require residential assistants as in years past. He asked those students to “hang tight with us as we make decisions,” promising regular communication.

“You remain a key part of the Virginia Tech experience we will be crafting in the future,” Shushok said.

He also responded to a question about whether students should sign off-campus leases for the fall. Shushok said that conversations seem to indicate there’s a healthy supply of student housing in Blacksburg. Although students are understandably anxious to secure a living space, “my best advice is to be patient,” Shushok said. “You can wait a little bit to make a decision. We’ll be letting people know where we stand.”

4. Students shouldn’t confuse the “credit/noncredit” option with “pass/fail.”

Traditionally, Holloway said, Virginia Tech faculty have offered two grading modes: The A-F system and pass/fail. Credit/noncredit is a new option offered this spring that’s designed to minimize the negative impact on a student’s GPA because of the quick pivot to online learning.

Under the credit/noncredit option, the faculty member assigns an A-F grade as usual. If the grade is C- or better, the registrar converts the grade to a CC, in which the student receives credit for the course and will fulfill any requirement for one’s major, minor, or course prerequisites. If the grade is a D or D+, the registrar converts it to a CD, in which the student will get credit for the course and any requirement honored by a D or D+. If the student gets an D- or F, the student does not receive credit for the course. In none of these cases will the student’s GPA be affected by the grade.

The difference between this system and pass/fail is that pass/fail does not necessarily fulfill requirements for degrees, while credit/noncredit does.

Holloway said that students can make this decision up until May 6.

“My advice would be to be very clear on what grade you’re earning as you get near to the end of term,” Holloway said. “Be sure you understand how a final project or exam might calculate into your grade, so you know where you stand. Talk to your advisor about the different options.”

5. Virginia Tech is actively learning from and responding to the pandemic and its consequences.

The shift to remote learning in response to the pandemic has proven stressful for everyone in the Virginia Tech community — but it’s also created opportunities for service, innovation, and improvement.

In Roanoke, where Virginia Tech is partnering with Carilion Clinic to conduct research and instruct future doctors, the two are “solving problems on the fly” as they fine-tune their response to the pandemic. Medical students are collecting personal protective equipment to ensure providers don’t run out of supplies. Others are using 3D-printers to make additional equipment.

Meanwhile, Virginia Tech will conduct COVID-19 testing for local health districts at the Fralin Life Science Institute on the Blacksburg campus and at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke. They are preparing to scale to 1,000 tests per day, with a 24-hour turnaround, Sands said.

Beyond the immediate response, Sands said the pivot to remote learning is “forcing us to build some tools.” This isn’t the ideal scenario for that development, he added, but the pandemic has essentially advanced Virginia Tech’s approach to remote learning by five to 10 years within just a few months.

“The idea is that faculty and students and staff could be anywhere in world and still be connected to Virginia Tech,” Sands said. “It’s all hand in hand. We’re trying to learn as much as we can as we go through and navigate this pandemic.”

For more information about COVID-19 and Virginia Tech’s response, please visit the university’s dedicated coronavirus website.

— Written by Mason Adams