A message from Virginia Tech President Tim Sands
August 9, 2020
To my fellow Hokies,
As we approach the start of the fall semester, I know many of you have concerns related to our decision to start the fall in a residential model, with some of our teaching and learning conducted in an in-person format. One question I’ve heard from numerous members of our community: Wouldn’t it be safer to start the semester without residential students and with all instruction offered only online, similar to what some other Virginia colleges and universities have recently announced?
I can assure you that we remain committed to the community’s health and safety, just as we have since we decided to transition to remote instruction in March. These are tough, complex choices that we have to make, and every option, including remote operation, presents some risks for members of our community.
Weighing against fully remote operation is the value that Virginia Tech students place on in-person experiences – within and alongside the formal curriculum - that are not replicable in a virtual format. Our students have told us they missed those experiences in the spring after we transitioned to online classes. The inherent value of the residential experience is why our faculty and staff have worked tirelessly over the summer to prepare the campus for the fall.
The risks of a residential model at Virginia Tech today are different than they were in March. It is important to remember that we have vastly more information today about COVID-19 than we did in the spring.
While there is much still to learn, we now know the importance of wearing facial coverings and physical distancing, and we now have guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Virginia Department of Health on how best to mitigate risk. Our own researchers have contributed to this evolving knowledge, including Linsey Marr’s work on aerosol transmission and the importance of ventilation.
Today, we are also equipped with testing, contact tracing, isolation/quarantine space, personal protective equipment, and modified spaces to enable physical distancing. We are much more prepared now. And individually, there is more that we can control to protect each other.
Our approach to the residential model this fall is reinforced by investments we made in the spring to set up our own COVID-19 testing analysis lab in Roanoke. We have been hitting the mark with typical PCR testing turnaround of better than 24 hours, and we have been using this service to support the health districts in Southwest Virginia since April.
Starting this week, our capacity of 1,000 tests per day will be largely dedicated to Virginia Tech students and employees in high-contact roles, with excess capacity after move-in allocated to the community through the local health districts. This testing capacity has been a key factor in allowing Virginia Tech to plan for fall opening with some in-person instruction and with about one-quarter of our students occupying on-campus residences in Blacksburg. We are fortunate to be the only public higher education institution in Virginia with this in-house capacity that is not also obliged to prioritize the academic hospital setting.
In terms of risks, we do not believe that residential halls are our biggest vulnerability, nor do we think that classroom settings are going to be a significant factor in the spread of COVID-19. In both cases, we believe we have mitigated the risk to manageable levels, going well beyond current public health standards. Our biggest risks are likely to result from behaviors that individuals can control, such as off-campus gatherings and travel to and from hot spots. We will be burdened with those risks whether we are remote or not because many of our students, as well as staff and faculty, are already living in our community, and they will continue to do so if we are forced into remote operation.
And while financial considerations will not override health considerations in our decision-making, they would be consequential for Virginia Tech and for our community. We currently estimate that going fully remote for the fall would result in up to $210 million in additional expenses and lost revenue. I’m often asked why we can’t just use our endowment or cash reserves to ride out a remote fall. Considering the restrictions on our endowment and cash reserves, as well as state laws that limit the transfer of funds across divisions of the university, a remote fall would undoubtedly result in loss of employment for many of our valued employees. Executive salary reductions, furloughs, and other measures would not be sufficient to cover the gap. Besides the obvious hardship that would befall those employees and the rippling impacts on our communities, our ability to support quality instruction and our research enterprise would be impacted.
Weighing all of these considerations, we must make every effort to provide students and faculty the choice to participate in the residential campus model, provided we can effectively mitigate the risks of COVID-19. That said, we will move to remote operation if public health considerations dictate.
We will get through this by taking care of ourselves and taking care of each other. It won’t be easy but we will do it together. It’s the Virginia Tech way.
Be well. Be committed. Go Hokies.
For support, please contact Hokie Wellness at the numbers below.
For more information visit: vt.edu/ready