Back to school: UVA-Wise announces fall opening plans

UVA Wise's Slemp Student Center, right, and library, left, have been empty since mid-March in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, that that will change. College officials announced Thursday plans for the college to open for in-person classes on Aug. 12.

WISE — Classrooms and public spaces at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise have been empty for three months in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that changes in August.

UVA Wise Chancellor Donna Henry on Thursday announced the college’s “Return to Wise” reopening plan, which will combine in-person classes with several measures to protect students and employees from exposure to the novel coronavirus.

Henry said the 2020-21 academic year begins Aug.12, about a week earlier that normal, and will end about two-to-three weeks earlier than normal — the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

Students are going to see a split semester for most academic classes, with those classes lasting eight weeks and each class meeting lengthened from 50 minutes to two hours on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, said Tricia Folds-Bennett, the college’s new Provost. Instead of a week-long fall break, students will get a one-day break between the eight-week sessions.

Folds-Bennett said UVA Wise worked with peer institutions to develop the new course schedule. Data on shorter courses and longer class periods indicated benefits to student learning, she said, and students will only be taking two or three courses during each eight-week block.

Classes in programs such as theater, nursing and education will last 16 weeks and will meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the normal 90-minute class sessions under last year’s class times for those days, Henry said. The longer course block will allow face-to-face instruction appropriate for those programs as well as nursing clinicals and student teaching requirements.

All students and employees will get personal protective gear — masks and gloves — Henry said and “liberal” supplies of hand sanitizer will be available across campus. Cleaning procedures across campus will also be intensified, she said.

Employees will return to campus starting July 6, Henry said, and campus food service contractor Chartwells plans to bring back as many furloughed employees as needed to operate under state COVID-19 health guidelines. The college’s Chick-fil-A franchise — also operated by Chartwells — could reopen in mid-August, she added.

Henry said the short fall break also helps keep students from going home and facing potential exposure to COVID-19 infection. If a student tests positive for COVID-19 while on campus and is asymptomatic, a campus residence hall has been designated as a quarantine and observation residence, she added.

The college will implement a COVID-19 testing plan through campus student and employee health services, Henry said, and will work with the Virginia Department of Health if an outbreak appears.

In case of a statewide surge in COVID-19 cases, the college is prepared to go back to all-online classes if state officials order campuses closed again, Henry said.

“All of our classes will be ready to give instruction at a distance,” Henry said.

“If we have to go fully online, it will not be a surprise or emergency like it was in the spring,” Folds-Bennett added.

Folds-Bennett said an examination of the college’s classrooms and how they can accommodate six-foot social distancing between students and instructors means that about 20% of the college’s course offerings in the fall will be online. In cases where faculty members may have individual health concerns, they will be able to conduct their courses online if needed.

While the college had to make changes last semester and into the fall because of COVID-19, Henry said enrollment of first-time freshmen and transfer students is ahead of the college’s five-year average numbers before the pandemic. The college will host a student orientation on June 26.