Virginia colleges and universities can reopen this fall — if they have a plan

The Rotunda at the University of Virginia. (Style Weekly)

Colleges and universities in Virginia have the go-ahead to admit students on campus this fall.

But they’ll be expected to follow new guidelines from the Virginia Department of Health and submit “comprehensive reopening plans” to the State Council for Higher Education, which must review and approve them before campuses can reopen, Gov. Ralph Northam said at a Thursday news conference.

The higher education announcement follows Tuesday’s guidance on reopening K-12 schools, which are expected to follow a phased approach along with the rest of the state. But while colleges and universities are “encouraged to continue remote learning where practical,” according to an updated executive order, they’re permitted to resume face-to-face learning as long as they follow general safety guidelines for all businesses under the governor’s Phase Two plan.

“We have one of the best and most diverse systems of higher education in our nation,” Northam said. “Our institutions range from large to small, heavily residential to commuter, from urban to rural and beyond. That is why each institution will take on this challenge in a way that meets their unique mission and circumstances.”

Colleges and universities across Virginia have faced looming budget crunches as the COVID-19 pandemic closed campuses and forced a rapid transition to online learning. With expected revenue hits — and millions of state funding on the line for many public university systems as legislators prepare to revisit the state budget — schools are considering new ways to fill their incoming freshman classes. 

For some, that means dipping into waitlists, a decision that could impact many of the state’s smaller institutions, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported last month.

Incoming students will face “a new normal” as classes resume, SCHEV director Peter Blake said at the briefing. Gatherings of 50 people or more are still prohibited, which will require significant adjustments by many state schools.

“More courses will be taught in an online or hybrid manner,” he added. “Classes will be small, schedules will be staggered, residents’ lives will be spread out, food service will be offered in non-traditional ways, and large events, such as performing arts and athletics, will be a new experience.”

Reopening also depends on public health metrics in the broader community, including “positive trends” in data — generally interpreted by state officials as declining hospitalization numbers and positive COVID-19 test results” — and the ability of local health care systems to meet a surge of new cases.

Reopening plans are also expected to address a school’s ability to safely monitor and contain new cases, ensure students can safely return to and from campus, and transition back to remote learning if the state enforces another shutdown.

Several colleges and universities have already announced plans to resume on-campus classes this fall, including James Madison University, Virginia Tech, and the University of Virginia, which has already spent $400,000 on personal protective equipment for student “welcome-back kits,” according to U.S. News and World Report.