In the past academic year, many West Virginia University students faced issues they had never faced before. For other students, Zoom fatigue, social isolation, and burnout have been the only aspects of college life they have ever experienced.
The university has often stated they would like the fall 2021 semester to be “normal” — but what is WVU’s definition of “normal” when uncertainties regarding the state of the COVID-19 pandemic later this year persist?
During the university’s virtual Spring State of the University for Students event, the topic was addressed by WVU President E. Gordon Gee, Dean of Students Corey Farris, and Medical Director of WVU Medicine Student Health and Urgent Care Dr. Carmen Burrell.
“We’re hoping that campus in the fall will be closer to normal than where we are now,” Burrell said.
She said with COVID-19 vaccines becoming increasingly available, she thinks campus will be a much safer environment than it has been for the past year.
It looks like WVU might have a chance to improve from its current position with the pandemic, and the university is hoping to be able to resume some activities it has held in the past, she said.
“We might still be practicing preventative techniques such as social distancing and mask-wearing, but of course it’s hard to predict at this time,” Burrell said.
Regarding vaccines, Burrell said while the World Health Organization and other agencies have not yet determined how much is needed to develop herd immunity to SARS-CoV-2 specifically, it typically requires between 70% and 90% of the population having a vaccine or natural immunity to build herd immunity.
Gee said the university has yet to conclude whether it will require students to be vaccinated for COVID-19, but encouraged students to get vaccines when they can.
He said choosing to get vaccinated is “good community service,” and that the more students who are vaccinated, the more likely it is to return to “normal” and be able to commence without the challenges other institutions have faced.
“The more that people are vaccinated, the more that we’re going to have a quality life on our campus,” Gee said.
Burrell said she thinks everyone understands where we are in the pandemic right now. The U.S. has recently seen a slight increase of infection rates in the younger population. Burrell believes the majority has realized it’s important to get that younger age group vaccinated, and the majority of that age group will choose to do so to protect loved ones and be able to resume more “normal” activities.
“We’re hoping that most people will choose to have the vaccine so that we’ll have a much safer environment, which will decrease transmission, decrease infection and possible hospitalization, and decrease the spread of variants,” Burrell said.
Burrell said the difference between the COVID-19 vaccine and other required vaccines, like those for tetanus and hepatitis B, is the COVID-19 vaccine is newer.
“We know that everyone has varying comfort levels with the vaccine and they’re still learning more about it,” she said.
Farris said that, regarding what fall on campus will look like from a social perspective, WVU will continue to be driven by what is safe, though the university wants to do as much as it can to not have a year like the past academic year.
According to Farris, the university hopes to be able to resume WVU UpAllNight activities, have more activities at the Student Recreation Center, continue to have 500+ student organizations, allow resident hall students to participate in programs organized by resident assistants, and host welcome week activities.
Farris said the university plans to relaunch its Adventure WV program sometime during the summer.
“What that looks like, we’re still working on … because we know that right now we’re still in a pandemic environment. Some of this we’re going to have to wait and see where we are in June, July, and certainly in August to see what we can add. But we certainly don’t want next year to be what we experienced this year,” Farris said.
Gee said the university hopes to see as close to a total return to campus as possible, but spikes in COVID-19 positive case rates and the emergence of variants make the situation unpredictable.
He said he takes pride in WVU remaining open during the pandemic and in West Virginia’s handling of the pandemic.
“We’re ranked number one in the country in terms of distribution of vaccinations. So, we are doing everything to be an institution and to be a state that provides the very best quality of life for our students. I think that if we just continue to follow our path … we’ll be very successful in the fall,” he said.
WVU has yet to announce additional details regarding the fall 2021 return to campus.