Halfway through the semester, Virginia Tech rises to the challenge
October 7, 2020
To the university community,
I would like to take a moment, at the halfway point of our semester, to share with you some thoughts on our progress to date and the outlook for the future.
A few short months ago, no one in higher education knew exactly what to expect as campuses opened across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. At Virginia Tech, we planned exhaustively for a range of scenarios, worked hard to implement those plans, and were prepared to change direction as needed. In particular, we focused on robust testing and modification of instructional spaces to enable hybrid instruction and a residential experience.
We counted on our strong and supportive community to protect each other by wearing masks, maintaining distance, and avoiding indoor gatherings when masking and distancing aren’t possible. You lived up to those expectations, making it possible for us to weather the initial spike in cases and stay the course. I’m especially proud of our students, like the “COVID Crushers” in the Master of Public Health program who are supporting public health education and contact tracing, and the VTCSOM Medical Design Club that is developing innovative solutions to the need for PPE and other challenges presented by the pandemic.
Together, Virginia Tech is rising to the challenge, and I’m confident that we will be able to finish the semester as planned. The data tell the story. Our daily average case numbers have fallen to about one-third of the peak, both on campus and in Montgomery County. The positivity rate for testing performed through Schiffert Health Center has dropped from a peak of 19 percent to 5 percent, and early indications from our mandatory prevalence testing program indicate active infections at a rate between 1 and 2 percent. We have not seen transmission in instructional settings, nor do we see spread into the community. The region’s health care capacity is not strained.
Although this is excellent progress, we are not yet where we need to be to relax the policies that have guided us to this point. This is not the time to give in to pandemic fatigue. That’s why we’ve significantly expanded testing in recent weeks. Still, I am hopeful that continuing to wear masks, maintain distance, and avoid indoor gatherings will give us a chance to finish the in-person portion of the semester with fewer restrictions in place, such as those on outdoor activities.
As we look past the COVID-19 pandemic and to our university’s vibrant future, we continue to focus on the bold vision that shaped our strategic plan, The Virginia Tech Difference: Advancing Beyond Boundaries. Thanks to Hokie spirit and determination, even with the challenges faced by all during this extraordinary time, we’re making excellent progress.
Undergraduate enrollment reached 30,000 this year, a few years ahead of schedule and in contrast to national trends. This was a good year to grow given that nearly a third of our students are engaged virtually. This spring, we will work with our community and our campus to optimize our enrollment in consideration of infrastructure constraints, instructional capacity, the increasing demand for a Virginia Tech degree, and the experience we have gained through the pandemic.
I’m also proud of the progress we’re making to build a more diverse and inclusive university community. Underrepresented minority students now make up more than 19 percent of our entering class compared to 13 percent five years ago. We are advancing toward our milestone of 25 percent in 2022, on the way to providing access to all of the talent that the commonwealth offers. The combined number of underrepresented and underserved students – including low-income, first-generation, and veteran students – make up 39 percent of entering undergraduates, almost reaching our 2022 milestone of 40 percent.
Robust enrollment combined with early indications that the General Assembly session now underway will yield stable funding bodes well for the fiscal health of our university. We will propose a revised budget for fiscal year 2020-21 to the Board of Visitors later this fall.
Research and innovation have never been stronger at Virginia Tech. Sponsored project awards were up 15 percent for the year ending in June, and expenditures were at an all-time high. Impressive as they are, these figures don’t reflect the full impact of our research and engagement efforts, which are better characterized by the extraordinary public attention our problem-solving and community-engaged researchers, innovators, and Extension agents have earned during the pandemic.
Fundraising set records again this year, and we’re celebrating the generosity of two alumni, Hema and Mehul Sanghani, who sponsored creation of The Market of Virginia Tech, an initiative to provide food assistance to students who have difficulty obtaining regular, healthy meals.
And of course, we couldn’t have made it this far into the semester without the hard work and dedication of those who keep our facilities, residence halls, and dining centers operating; maintain essential services like IT and mail delivery; ensure our campus safety and security; and provide critical student services, including health and wellness and student programming. We also owe much to student workers and volunteers, including the Corps of Cadets, who helped deliver thousands of packages to students across campus.
I know I speak for every Hokie when I say it’s great to see our football team back on field this year. I appreciate the efforts of Athletic Director Whit Babcock, Virginia Tech Athletics, and our student-athletes for doing everything possible to preserve the opportunities provided by ACC competition across our fall sports. I especially want to applaud Coach Fuente, along with his staff and players, for doing an incredible job navigating this unprecedented season, keeping everyone safe, and playing inspired football.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to challenges that none of us expected, asked for, or deserved. We have been forced to do things differently and to set aside – temporarily – some of our most treasured in-person experiences. Yet, by the measures that matter most, our Virginia Tech is stronger than it has ever been. Let’s keep up the good and hard work and finish this semester in true Hokie fashion. Good luck on your midterm exams. Take time to vote and don’t forget to get a flu shot. Stay vigilant and follow good public health practices, especially during fall break. Practice self-care and contact Hokie Wellness if you need help. And above all, be proud of everything we’ve accomplished so far and join me in looking forward to the promising future ahead.
Thank you, Hokies.
Be committed. Be well.