WVU moving forward with plans to reopen campus in fall

University to penalize violators of mandatory testing requirement, mask order
WVU still planning to return to campus
Published: Jul. 9, 2020 at 3:29 PM EDT
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va (WDTV) - West Virginia University is moving forward with plans to begin fall classes on August 19, despite recent surges of coronavirus cases in Monongalia County, especially among people in their 20s.

WVU leaders are hoping students, faculty and staff will cooperate with guidelines set out in order to reopen campus next month.

Dr. Clay Marsh, West Virginia’s coronavirus czar who is advising the governor on how to respond to the pandemic, also serves as the Vice President and Executive Dean of WVU Health Sciences.

“We will do what we believe is in the best interests of the people that live here and work here,” Marsh said. “We want to open the university, but we are committed that we will do that only if feel that we can do that safely.”

Monongalia County reported the second-highest amount of confirmed COVID-19 cases in West Virginia at 381 on Thursday.

224 of those cases have been reported in July.

51% of the county’s cases are among people in their 20s.

Marsh and other university administrators outlined plans to return to campus in a virtual town hall discussion named the “Return to Campus Conversation.”

Officials said they’re monitoring data in the “dynamic situation” to prepare plans to reopen. On Wednesday, Governor Jim Justice announced West Virginia is delaying the start of the public school year by two weeks until September 8.

“Absolutely, if we were to rush this and go back to school in two or three weeks in my opinion, it is the wrong solution,” Justice said Wednesday.

All students, faculty and staff will have to follow certain procedures when returning, including requirements to get tested for COVID-19 and wearing masks while on campus. They’ll also be required to take an online education course that will outline information about COVID-19 and the university’s safety procedures.

“We know from the science that dealing with the pandemic is going to be something we all will have to work together on,” said Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Rob Alsop.

The initial round of testing will be conducted by the university. Students and employees will receive an email to register for a testing event.

Even if someone gets a COVID-19 test before returning to campus, they’ll still be required to participate in university-organized testing.

The university will cover the testing costs.

“We know that there will be others from time to time who say they don’t want to wear a mask, or it’s not important to take a test,” Alsop said. “We do plan to have several enforcement mechanisms for that, in addition to the educational component.”

Students who fail to get a test will pay a $250 fee. Employees could be placed on administrative leave without pay if they don’t get tested.

As for the mask mandate, there currently are no penalties currently for violating the statewide face-covering order issued by the governor.

But on campus, violators could receive penalties including a written warning, probation, removal from class, or possible expulsion from the university.

“A lot of this is going to come down to personal accountability and responsibility,” Alsop said. “So we will continue to educate our students and our faculty and our staff that they need to follow these rules because it’s the right thing to do for themselves, not only others.”

Students will receive a “welcome back kit” that will include a “cloth face mask or gaiter, disposable masks, hand sanitizer and a key touch tool,” according to the university’s plan. Masks will also be available to people on campus when classes begin if they forget or don’t have one.

University officials said they are preparing a separate residence hall where they’ll move students if they test positive for COVID-19 and live on campus; they won’t see additional charges and their parents can pick them up from campus if they choose.

They’re still coming up with plans for routine testing after students return.

“We’ll be focusing on areas where we’re trying to reduce spread or focus on populations where we think spread is more likely,” Alsop said.

He said campus isn’t the only concern for the university.

“If our bars are operating the way they do in a normal year for the university, the likelihood of significant spread will increase dramatically,” Alsop said.

Classes aren’t in session, but recent spikes in coronavirus cases in Morgantown have been linked to bars. Several bars and restaurants in Morgantown and Monongalia County voluntarily closed or shifted to only provide take-out orders after the recent spike in cases which also saw bar and restaurant employees contract the virus.

Alsop said the university will need to work with the governor’s office along with city and county leaders to develop more plans to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“We don’t want anyone to not be in business,” Alsop said. “We don’t want to go back to the hammer where we’re all shut down. But as we do work through this semester, given the environment we’re in, the university is going to push for additional mitigation strategies to try to make sure we limit community spread as we move forward.”

Dr. Marsh continuously stressed the key to safely returning to campus will involve everyone avoiding the “Three C’s”

- Closed indoor spaces

- Close, constant contact with people you don’t live with

- Crowds

“If we avoid these three C’s then we are going to be advantaged,” Marsh said.

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