Editor's note: A first-published version of this story featured discussion on the Sept. 19 football game between Virginia Tech and Virginia. That game has been rescheduled for a future date.

What COVID-19 metrics does Virginia Tech use to make decisions? 

What are the university’s plans for the spring semester?

What are the repercussions for Virginia Tech students who break COVID-19 public health rules?

Virginia Tech President Tim Sands and other university leaders fielded these questions and others during a Sept. 11 virtual conversation that featured eight undergraduate and graduate students, representing all areas of campus life.

The students were: Camellia Pastore, undergraduate student representative to the Board of Visitors; Sabrina Sturgeon, graduate student representative to the Board of Visitors; Adil Sageer, undergraduate student government president; Maruf Hoque, graduate student assembly president; Ginai Seabron, graduate student and 2018 Virginia Tech alumnae; Margaret Nagai, a PhD student;  Agustin Fiorito, a Virginia Tech junior; and Chapman Pendery, vice president of student government.

The students largely guided the conversation, with questions that touched on everything from how the university manages students who do not comply with COVID-19 rules to what will happen to student jobs if campus operations close.

The following are highlights from the discussion.

Metrics that guide the university’s decisions about in-person courses vs. all virtual classes:

The university watches several metrics, including hospital and healthcare capacity in the region, the availability of quarantine and isolation space on campus, the pace of increased cases, and positivity rates, Sands said. And though the university monitors total COVID-19 positive cases, that isn’t the only number that is important.

“We don’t have a numerical number that causes us to move in a different direction, but they all will incite conversation,” Sands said.

Also, with only 7 percent of Virginia Tech’s courses held in-person right now, moving all classes online is not necessarily the answer, Sands said.

“Going online is not the end all,” he said. “Our most effective thing is public health messaging.”

The importance of self-reporting positive COVID-19 tests:

The university encourages students to self-report a positive COVID-19 test, even if they were not tested on campus. This helps the university to have a better idea of cases in the campus community and to support students.

Also, Sands assured students that they will not be punished if they report a positive COVID-19 test.

“We’re not going to track a positive case and use it to subject that person to student conduct,” he said. “But the more data we have and the more data we control, the faster we can react and the better we can distribute resources."

COVID-19 testing is increasing:

Testing is ramping up at Virginia Tech, with the start of random sampling, wastewater testing, and surveillance testing.

Also, a dashboard has been developed for reporting COVID-19 cases and testing at Virginia Tech’s Roanoke campuses, said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and vice president for Health Sciences and Technology at Virginia Tech. 

Friedlander, who joined the town hall, explained that the Fralin lab tests 800 to 1,000 samples a day, including samples from Schiffert Health Center. It also provides testing for health districts in Southwest Virginia.

Students suspended for violating COVID-19 rules:

So far, more than 40 students have been suspended on an interim basis from Virginia Tech for failing to follow public health rules, said Frank Shushok, vice president for Student Affairs. Still, 95 percent of Hokies are doing the right thing, he said.

“Making social choices, wearing a mask, keeping your distance, washing your hands, and being committed to that is hard,” he said. “I want to acknowledge that it is especially hard to be a college student right now. I want to implore you to keep making good decisions and holding people accountable.”

The status of student jobs and graduate assistantships:

Campus has returned to somewhat normal operations, allowing students to resume on-campus jobs. During the town hall, Fiorito explained that many students suffered financial hardships from lost jobs last semester when campus shut down at the start of the pandemic.

The same would happen if campus had to shut down again.

“It would be a painful shift,” Sands said. “Our community depends on Virginia Tech to a large extent, and we can’t make those decisions without weighing in on the bigger picture.”

Karen DePauw, vice president and dean of Graduate Education who also joined the town hall, said graduate assistantships will remain in place through the end of the semester, even if campus operations change.

Virginia Tech is not basing continuing campus operations on tuition dollars but on a long-term plan:

Sands offered reasons why continuing campus operation is important, despite the challenges of COVID-19.

“The reason we are here together in Blacksburg and around the commonwealth in different forms is that Virginia Tech as an entity is not an online adult learner enterprise, “ Sand said. “It is a community of scholars.

“The assumption that we are making is that we will be doing this for about a year,” he added. “We just have to go about doing our business. We’re going to do the best we can to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. I won’t say categorically that we won't change direction, but to be perfectly honest, what we are learning is that going remote wouldn’t help that much, not enough to justify the hassle of it.”

— Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone