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VCU students crossing West Main Street. [View Image] VCU students cross West Main Street on the first day of classes. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

With high vaccination rates paving the way, a more active school year begins

Vaccines and masks are central to keeping everyone safe as the fall semester gets underway.

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The courtyard outside the Student Commons at Virginia Commonwealth University was a bustle of activity Wednesday. Music wafted into the late summer air. Yellow-and-black tents covered the courtyard, as VCU Recreational Sports and other departments presented information while hundreds of students came and went.

Life has returned to campus.

How we got here was a collective effort. Masks and vaccinations have been a central focus of VCU’s pandemic response and back-to-campus plan. In June, the university announced it would require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19. In August, VCU and VCU Health said they would require vaccination for employees as well and the university reinstated its indoor face mask requirement.

The result is a campus community that is overwhelmingly vaccinated. To date, 91.3% of students have verified their vaccination with VCU (another 4.2% have an approved exemption). Eighty-seven percent of VCU employees are vaccinated (the deadline for employees to report COVID-19 vaccination or submit an exemption request is Sept. 15). Meanwhile, masks are required inside university and health system buildings. 

These steps have helped create a much more active campus than the past few semesters, even as the delta variant continues to spread. Fifty-three percent of VCU undergraduate classes this fall are being taught either face to face or in a hybrid format with some face-to-face contact, and modified versions of New Student Convocation and the Ram Spirit Walk were held ahead of the first day of classes for the first time since 2019.Students parading through campus at the Ram Spirit Walk. [View Image]Students parading through campus at the Ram Spirit Walk. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing) A student makes a wish at the ram horns sculpture outside the Student Commons. [View Image]A student makes a wish at the ram horns sculpture outside the Student Commons. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing) students playing games in Monroe Park. [View Image]Playing games in Monroe Park. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Michael Stevens, M.D., an infectious disease expert at VCU Health, said VCU’s public health efforts have allowed the university to make decisions that were vital to the return of in-person learning. He emphasized that vaccination and masking are vital to keeping everyone on campus safe.

“Vaccination is the best thing people can do to reduce their risk for infection,” Stevens said. “If people are vaccinated and are using masks correctly — especially in indoor public spaces — the risk for infection is very, very low. Over a year and a half into the pandemic, we know what to do. Right now, getting vaccinated and wearing masks as recommended are the best things people can do to keep themselves and the people around them safe.” 

He acknowledged that breakthrough infections can occur, but the vaccines are “incredibly effective” at preventing severe disease. And the university can always adjust protocols and behaviors if the situation warrants, he said. 

Together again 

All of these efforts are intended to create — and maintain — a safe learning environment, and that extends beyond the classroom. David Greene, Ed.D., director of University Student Commons and Activities, said the past year and a half was a challenge for everyone and VCU is trying to make students feel welcome as they return to campus. VCU is their home, he said.

“When we research student success, one of the things that it always comes back to is if a student feels that they’ve been engaged by the institution, then they feel that this is their home,” Greene said. “It feels like that place where they can belong, where they can be themselves and grow and discover.” 

Campus life is a new thing for a large portion of the student body this fall. Many sophomores took all or most of their freshman classes online last year. Some even lived outside Richmond, so in-person learning and campus life are new experiences. Nearly 5,800 students are living on campus this semester, up from 4,200 last fall.

“I am excited to be back on campus,” said Akhila Kunuthuru, a junior biology major in the College of Humanities and Sciences and a member of the Honors College. “I am still in awe of how fast the past year and a half went by, especially with online classes, but I am looking forward to having some of my classes in person and meeting professors and peers without the barrier of a screen separating us.”

Kunuthuru said she missed a lot about campus life and eagerly awaited late-night study sessions in the library. She was excited to reconnect with fellow students and faculty, but she emphasized that COVID-19 is still a problem, and everyone needs to make sure the VCU and Richmond communities stay safe. 

“Even though everything seems to be reverting back to normal, albeit at different paces, I would still stress safety, as COVID is still affecting many people,” she said. “We are living in a new reality, but we can continue to be safe and still make memories and have amazing experiences.” Accounting major Alyssa Sandlin reads a book in Monroe Park [View Image]Accounting major Alyssa Sandlin reads a book in Monroe Park. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing) Students on the way to and from class on the first day of the fall semester. [View Image]On the way to and from class on the first day of the fall semester. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing) Maher Mubarak studying in Cabell Library [View Image]Maher Mubarak studying in Cabell Library. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Greene said the goal for the university is to create that safe space for students. They have different levels of risk assessment, he said.

“I think we saw that in the concert after [New Student Convocation],” Greene said. “You had some students that were standing up closer to the stage. But you still had a lot of these smaller groups of students just sitting on their towels or blankets, kind of spread out and spaced out.” 

The university is planning to host many student events this fall, but Greene said they might still look a little different. VCU is looking to have talks and speaker events in the Student Commons in person again, for example, but likely will also broadcast the talks online and allow those joining virtually to ask questions. 

Chatavia Gallon, a student in the accelerated nursing program, said she enjoyed the comforts of living at home and taking classes online but has been looking forward to in-person learning. She is excited to see friends and professors and wants everyone to do their part to keep campus safe. 

“I am hopeful that we can wear masks together, practice social distancing and frequent hand washing in order to make this on-campus life work together safely,” Gallon said. “Hopefully it won’t be forever, but if we all play our small part, then campus life could feel normal again. Let’s enjoy this time together back on campus and make the best of it.” 

Evan Meadows, a fourth-year Pharm.D. student in the School of Pharmacy, had similar thoughts. He was on the Monroe Park Campus on Tuesday for VCU's annual Candid Campus photo shoot and said he had missed the rituals and camaraderie of pharmacy school the past few semesters, especially getting breakfast at the VCU Health cafeteria with classmates after a tough exam. 

The late August sun was high overhead and temperatures were in the 90s. Meadows stood in a medical white coat and smiled broadly behind a black face mask. 

“I am so excited to be back.”

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