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Officials: Successful WVU Reopening Depends on Students

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia University officials say a plan to reopen the state’s flagship university this fall relies heavily on student cooperation and personal responsibility.

On Wednesday, WVU officials announced students would return to classes Aug. 19 for the fall semester. University President Gordon Gee also released a letter to students asking for “personal accountability” in reopening the campus.

The university shut down in mid-March due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19, a respiratory illness which has resulted in a worldwide pandemic and the deaths of more than 100,000 in the United States. Officials with WVU’s reopening team spoke to members of the media in an online Zoom meeting Thursday afternoon, saying while steps were being taken to give students the on-campus experience with as little disruption as possible, everyone would need to work together to make sure it is done safely.

“We do think we are going to be living with positive cases and potential outbreaks” of COVID-19,” said Rob Alsop, Vice President for Strategic Initiatives. “We’re going to have to move quickly (to respond to outbreaks), but we’re also trying to build some safeguards in.”

The most essential of those safeguards, he said, is the widespread use of masks by all students and staff.

“We are going to broadly require the use of masks,” Alsop said.

In preparation, the university has ordered 41,000 WVU-themed masks to be distributed to all students and staff and another 300,000 single-use paper masks to be available throughout the campus.

“We will have an ample supply of PPE” or personal protective equipment, Alsop said.

All students and staff will be tested for COVID-19 at the beginning of the semester, and all students will be required to attend a course explaining all coronavirus-related safety measures and expectations.

Maryanne Reed, provost and vice president for academic affairs, said classrooms will remain at half capacity to ensure social distancing for staff and students. All will be required to wear masks, and instructors also will have the option of plexiglass shields in front of podiums or lecture areas.

“In consultation with our healthcare experts, we’ve determined if we reduce density in our classrooms to 50 percent or as close as we can get to 50 percent, with masks, we believe that is one of the best ways we can minimize transmission of the virus,” Reed said.

Officials said many of the university’s lab classes can either be done online or while observing social distancing and other safety measures.

Dr. Jeff Coben, associate vice president for health affairs and dean of the School of Public Health, said students will be expected to keep and wear their masks in any social situation.

“The expectation is you wear it when you are around others,” he said. “That’s not just when they are in the classroom. We have a concern and want to keep our community safe. The expectation is when they are out in the community in grocery stores and other places, that they wear those masks.”

Dean of Students Corey Farris said not wearing a mask will be considered a violation of the university’s student code of conduct, but officials stopped short of detailing what the consequences might be for repeated or willful violations.

“As for the type of sanctions that we might inflict, quite frankly every case is a little bit different,” Farris said. “It may be just a student has forgotten his or her mask, and it may be just a matter of handing them one of those disposable masks. For another it might just take a verbal warning or a conversation. If it becomes more egregious, there are certainly much stronger sanctions that we can take.”

The reopening plan calls for students to return to classes Aug. 19 and remain on campus, with no fall break, through Nov. 24. Students will leave for Thanksgiving Break, but will not return to campus. After break, students will have a week of online instruction and will take final exams online as well.

Spring classes will begin on campus Jan. 19 and will continue through April 30 with no spring break. Finals will be held on campus May 3-7.

Officials Thursday said all plans are “fluid” and can be adjusted and changed based upon the spread and control of COVID-19.

“We recognize a lot could happen between now and the start of the semester,” Coben said.

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