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Students return to campus with new rules

Longwood University students will soon return to the Farmville campus to begin classes in what already promises to be a unique experience for everyone involved.

University leaders have spent much of the summer preparing to bring students back to campus in as safe a manner as possible. A 152-page reopening plan has been approved by the state, classroom and gathering spaces have been reimagined to promote social distancing and masks will be required everywhere on campus when in residential living spaces.

“The things that will be the same, that really do matter, are our students being here, which is what they overwhelmingly want to do,” Longwood President W. Taylor Reveley IV said Friday.

But it will not be the Longwood of last year featuring a calendar filled with social and cultural events. Although, fall sports are still scheduled to proceed at this point, much of the typical college social interactions will be through a mask, socially distanced with an abundance of caution.

“People will be wearing masks. There will be ocean tides of hand sanitizer around,” Reveley said while discussing the deep cleaning protocols the university will undertake as well as limiting the frequency and size of gatherings. “Classrooms are going to have special setups to facilitate social distancing.”

Reveley and Longwood Chief of Staff and Vice President Justin Pope talked about using spaces such as auditoriums and oversized classroom spaces to make sure students had an adequate amount of distance while in the classrooms. They gave the example of the vacant bookstore space in the midtown complex being repurposed for music classes as one example of utilizing all the universities available buildings to make the plan work.

“We have naturally small classes to begin with,” Pope said . “And we have a good bit of classroom space. So we set out to assign classes to the biggest possible spaces, which is not usually how you do it, we have an inventory that can make it work.”

In the university of 5,000 students, only 15 of the more than 1,000 Longwood courses have more than 40 students in a class.

Unlike many other universities, only 15 to 20% of Longwood’s classes will be online only in the fall.

“Many other classes will have a greater hybrid dimension to them than they otherwise might,” Reveley said.

For students who may be immuno-compromised and may not want to attend any classes in person, Reveley and Pope said the university has been working individually with students who do not feel like they can attend typical classes, even socially distanced, to accommodate their needs.

One large difference at the university this fall will be requirement for everyone on campus to wear a mask. Reveley and Pope were wearing masks while sitting socially distanced during the discussion about reopening Friday in Lancaster hall. University workers were also all masked as they came in and out of the building. Reveley said that will be the norm for the entire Longwood community when they return to campus.

“Masks are required in classrooms and then in any other setting in which social distancing is not possible,” Reveley said while explaining a walk or run on campus on a quiet Sunday morning may not require a mask. “The rule of thumb would be if you are inside and not in your room or in your own office by yourself wearing a mask would be required.”

“We’re trying to create a culture of compliance and good public health habits, and we think the way to do that is for people to see people following rules that make sense,” Pope said. He said the university’s student leadership has been very supportive of the approach.

Reveley and Pope recognize that it’s the students themselves who have the largest role to play in keep each other safe and are counting on them to follow the rules to keep the campus as healthy as possible. Masks combined with daily health checks and keeping a safe distance are the tools given to students to have as normal a fall semester as possible under the circumstances.

“Longwood students and Hampden-Sydney students in their own way, they really understand how important their role is in making this academic year work,” Reveley said. “That has meant a lot to me in thinking about how things are going to progress over the fall.”

He and Pope said connecting the health responsibilities to the Longwood Honor Code is one way to re-enforce the new medical standards as necessary to the welfare of the student body as a whole.

Even with masks, hand sanitizer and more spaces in dining areas and classrooms, Reveley and Pope are not under the impression the university will go through the return to campus and not see COVID-cases among the student population. Longwood has set aside a dorm where students who test positive for the virus will be quarantined and medically cared for until they can return to the campus population.

“That’s one of our advantages,” Reveley said. “Not every place has that luxury.”

The ARC dorm will be set aside entirely for quarantine space. Pope said some students who test positive may choose to return home but said ARC will have a team of people to check on the quarantined students and help them keep up with course work until they are better.

Reveley drew contrasts between the situation at college and that of K-12 schools, many of which have chosen to move to remote learning only, at least for the first nine weeks or so. Reveley said the multiple buildings of colleges, the relatively short period of time spent in each space and in a much more spacious campus setting gives universities advantage a typical K-12 school does not have.

Reveley and Pope said there is not an outbreak total or any sort of trigger point that would call off the semester and send everyone home like happened last spring.

“There’s no absolute answer,” Pope said. “What we have is a collection of tools we can use to adjust if that becomes necessary, but we have a lot in place that gives us a good mitigation environment.”

Reveley said he feels for the incoming freshmen who will experience there first year of college behind a mask dealing with lots of new protocols while trying to adjust to a new learning environment away from home.

“They’re on my mind all the time,” Reveley said. “They have had some of the great ritual steps of life severely disrupted. They didn’t get their spring of their senior year. They didn’t get a high school graduation in a way that’s customary. So this next great ritual step in life, starting college, is going to matter enormously to them.”