Students are Heading Back to Grounds this Fall

This afternoon, University of Virginia President Jim Ryan sent an email to the university community informing them of the status of the Fall 2020 semester. You can read the email in full below:

University of Virginia
To the University Community,

With the semester over, the degrees awarded, and summer break officially underway, we want to thank all of you for helping us bring this difficult, memorable, and truly extraordinary year to a close. It was only possible due to your hard work and resilience under incredibly challenging circumstances, so please accept our deepest thanks.

Beyond thanking all of you, the purpose of this email is to update you on the topic that is foremost on all of our minds: planning for the fall. We are still planning to announce our final framework for the fall in mid-June, but we would like to take this opportunity to share some of our planning assumptions, in part to seek your feedback.

First, a brief note about the process to date. We have been guided by our desire to offer an exceptional experience for our students and, at the same time, to safeguard the health and safety of the UVA and Charlottesville community. Just over a month ago, we created a committee charged with identifying—and proposing answers to—the major questions needed to determine when and how we can safely welcome students to Grounds in the fall. The committee is chaired by our provost, Liz Magill, and includes faculty, staff, students, and a member of the Board of Visitors. We recently added some new members to the committee, including Ellen Bassett, the outgoing chair of the Faculty Senate and faculty representative to the Board of Visitors for next year; Kevin McDonald, our Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and Tre Tennyson, Chair of the Graduate and Professional School Council.

The committee’s work has been focused on several areas: 1) Determining the date by which we must make a decision about the fall semester; 2) Identifying the safest date on which we could resume classes on Grounds and what conditions might apply; 3) Thinking about alternative academic calendars and options for classes; 4) Looking at ways to support faculty in creating an amazing online experience; and 5) Considering the impact of these decisions on the University’s finances and operations.

Around each of these topics, committee members have fanned out across the University and in the community to seek input and expertise. We have asked many to participate in this work—faculty, staff, students, University leaders, public health experts, and members of the Charlottesville community. We have also been in close contact with our counterparts at colleges and universities in Virginia and across the country. In order to bring as many student voices into the process as possible, the committee has conducted several surveys, including separate surveys of undergraduate and graduate and professional students. Seventy-three percent of undergraduate students responded to the survey. With the Faculty Senate, we held a virtual town hall on Wednesday, May 27th, and we launched a faculty survey earlier this week. We plan to conduct staff town halls, polls, and surveys as well.

The committee’s work is not yet finished, and, as mentioned, we will announce a framework for the next academic year in mid-June. We nonetheless want to share our current thinking, both in the interest of transparency and in the hope of continuing to draw on the collective wisdom of our community.

To begin, our current plans are to start the fall semester as planned, with undergraduate courses starting on Tuesday, August 25th (start dates for graduate programs are available here). Assuming state and federal public health guidelines allow, we are planning to have students back on Grounds and to hold in-person classes this fall. We are still trying to determine how many students we can have safely back on Grounds and living in dorms, and how many in-person classes we can host, given social distancing restrictions.

What we do know for sure is that larger classes will remain online all semester, as will classes taught by faculty who have health concerns. Classes that are offered in person, with the exception of some practicums, will also be available remotely, since some students will not be able to return to Grounds. Most students will have the option to remain home in the fall and participate in classes remotely. Most students will also have options to defer or take a gap year, as always.

To increase student options even more, and to make sure that all undergraduate students can earn a full year’s worth of credits no matter how they start, we are looking into expanding our January Term course offerings. This will allow students a chance to take a lighter load of classes in the fall, whether in person or online. We are also considering additional ways to allow students to stretch their classes across a longer period of time than the traditional academic calendar. More details will be forthcoming, including from programs and professional and graduate schools that may have unique requirements and different constraints.

While the fall semester will start on time, we are planning to finish in-person instruction by Thanksgiving. Students will not return until the new year, which will minimize the inevitable risk associated with travel back and forth to Charlottesville. We are still determining if we can host exams before Thanksgiving or whether they will be offered remotely.

To keep students, faculty, staff, and members of our community safe, we are developing protocols for testing, tracing, and isolating anyone who tests positive for COVID-19, as well as identifying spaces to quarantine on-Grounds residents exposed to those who have contracted COVID-19. We are also acquiring personal protective equipment—including masks—for students, faculty, and staff. And we are developing social distancing guidelines, as well as norms and rules around these guidelines. This includes making plans for managing dining halls, libraries, and recreational facilities, as well as for ramping up scholarship and research—which we are preparingto do now.

This fall will not be a normal fall, even with some students back on Grounds and some classes being held in person. There inevitably will be greater risk in having students return, and we will be placing a good deal of trust in our students to look out for the safety and well-being not just of each other but of our faculty, staff, and community members. In some ways, it would be easier simply to be online all fall, or perhaps all year if the risk presented by the virus is not materially different in January than it is in August. But there are risks to that route as well, including obvious financial risks, but also less obvious but equally important educational and health risks.

We also believe we should do our best to be open for students, for several reasons. One of UVA’s greatest strengths is our world-class residential learning experience—something that, as all of you know by now, cannot be fully replicated online. We also appreciate that learning remotely is much harder for some students than others, given different living arrangements, family circumstances, and family obligations. There is also no end in reasonable sight for this virus, which makes it even more imperative that we do our best to adapt.

Finally, we emphasize that these are our current planning assumptions and that we are still in a fairly rapidly evolving situation. We will continue to adapt to new information, as we must in a pandemic of this nature. We also realize that no decision we ultimately make will be universally popular. Some will think UVA is moving too quickly or aggressively, while others will think we’re being too slow or cautious. What we can promise you is that we are working night and day to rely on the best information we have to make the best choices we can—not only for the health of UVA and our community, but for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of going to college. We are still in this together, and we are all going to need to draw on the collective creativity, flexibility, patience, and selflessness that we saw on full display this spring. It really was UVA at its very best, and we are going to have to be even better this fall.

Thank you, and we hope you and your families stay safe and well. We’ll be in touch with more information in mid-June.


Jim Ryan

Liz Magill

K. Craig Kent
EVP for Health Affairs

J.J. Davis
EVP and Chief Operating Officer


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