Medical experts raise concerns after colleges send students home due to COVID-19 spikes

Posted at 2:51 PM, Sep 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-08 17:17:17-04

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. - COVID-19 has drastically changed college campuses across the country. Right now students are trying to learn online while keeping their distance and being told not to hold big parties.

Parker Boggs is home on the Eastern Shore and not living as a freshman on the James Madison University campus as originally planned.

He moved on campus but then was told he needed to pack up and go home.

On September 1 the school announced they were sending kids back home after a rapid spike in positive COVID-19 cases. As of today there are about 1,000 cases, according to the University's website.

Boggs said they were suddenly told to pack their stuff up and move back home. He said his mother was able to come get him but for others who came from cities around the country it was difficult to figure out how to get back home.

“Almost everyone's jaws dropped when it was released,” said Boggs. “They asked us all to be sent home. We were able to file an exemption to stay if we had a reason, but they encouraged us to go back home with our families."

Boggs believes off campus gatherings and crowded dining halls contributed to the sharp COVID-19 spike.

“We have two main dining halls on campus D Hall and E Hall. D Hall, which is on main campus was extremely crowded every day that I went in,” said Boggs.

Boggs said he was disappointed that there wasn’t more student input when the decision was made to send students home.

Boggs would have liked to stay on campus and learn virtually.

Jonathan R. Alger, President, James Madison University sent out the following statement September 1:

“We started this academic year in the midst of a pandemic that has disrupted all aspects of our lives. We spent the last several months planning to start this year with a mix of in-person, hybrid, and online classes. In the days since students have been back on campus, we have observed their vibrancy, excitement to engage with their faculty, and large-scale adherence to COVID-19 rules and guidance. However, we have also observed troubling public health trends. As a result of a rapid increase in the number of positive cases of COVID-19 in our student population in a short period of time, the university is concerned about capacity in the number of isolation and quarantine spaces we can provide. Protecting the health of our Harrisonburg and Rockingham County community—including students, faculty, staff—is our top priority, and we need to act swiftly to stop the spread as best we can.

After consultation with the Virginia Department of Health, James Madison University will transition to primarily online learning, with some hybrid instruction for accreditation and licensure requirements, graduate research, and specialized upper-class courses requiring equipment and space, through the month of September. Courses currently offered online will continue to be online without any break in instruction. Classes will take place as scheduled for the remainder of this week unless students are otherwise notified by their faculty. In-person classes will transition online no later than this coming Monday, Sept. 7. Additionally, in an effort to reduce the number of people on campus, residents will be asked to return home by Sept. 7 unless they seek an exemption to stay. The Office of Residence Life will be in touch with our on-campus residents within the next 24 hours with further details to ensure a smooth departure.

Over the next month, university officials will carefully monitor health trends and other developments, and will be in touch with the campus community by Sept. 25 regarding the possibility of returning to in-person instruction on or after October 5. While courses will move primarily online during this four-week period, the university will remain open, and continue to offer on-campus amenities, such as dining, health and wellness services. Decisions about refunds have not yet been made, but we will communicate with students and families as soon as possible on that topic.

We do not make this decision lightly, especially after all of the efforts on the part of so many people to make the campus environment safe for the return of in-person classes. All along, we understood that we might need to transition to online learning at any moment if circumstances required. Accordingly, our faculty used the summer months to prepare for various contingencies, and they are ready to deploy interactive, engaging and high-quality instruction in the virtual space. Also, the university has recently made significant investments in the technological infrastructure needed to support those efforts, such as acquiring a license with Zoom, a leading virtual meeting tool.

To protect the health and safety of the communities to which students might be returning, students who have been advised to isolate or quarantine should finish out their prescribed time before leaving Harrisonburg. Additionally, as a precaution, students should plan to quarantine for two weeks upon arriving at their destination.

This is a difficult message to deliver, and while it is made in the best interest of public health and safety, we know it will come as a disappointment to many. Others may appreciate this change to engage in online learning given the circumstances. As we planned our in-person reopening this fall, we carefully considered the strength of the relationships that make JMU so special, the interactions between each of us that create such a caring and unique environment. We will all make a concerted effort to maintain and enhance those interactions and to stay connected so we can emerge even stronger as a community that has weathered this unprecedented time together.

In the meantime, our decisions will continue to be guided by public health and educational considerations at every turn. Working together in the finest spirit of JMU, I believe that Dukes can rise to meet this significant challenge.”

Other colleges around the country have told students to go back home as a result of high COVID-19 cases, but some medical experts disagree with this decision.

“They’re sending people away from the college campus in one certain location to all over the country or even all over the state to spread the virus so it's actually much more dangerous to do that and just keep them there quarantine them,” said Dr. Ryan Light, Tidewater Physicians Multispecialty Group. He said COVID could be spread quickly from students that don't show symptoms to family members who are vulnerable.

Colleges across the region are working hard to try to prevent the spread of the virus. Students everywhere are encouraged to wear masks, socially distance in classes rooms and dining halls and are being told not to go to big gatherings off or on campus.

Universities are trying to make the best decisions in very difficult times and young adults are trying to enjoy the next phase of life.

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