Virginia Tech and Radford University on Wednesday announced all in-person classes will switch online after an extended spring break amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
The decisions, affecting tens of thousands of students, faculty and staff, will effectively hollow out both campuses in a move, unprecedented in recent history, to contain the spread of a disease. Tech and Radford, which are both on spring break, will extend the break one more week, after which students are expected to begin classes online from home.
Tech said that online coursework will continue for the remainder of the spring semester. Radford said it will reevaluate on April 17 the move to online teaching.
The announcements — which followed similar decisions Wednesday by the University of Virginia and James Madison University — came the same day the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.
Roanoke College, too, announced Wednesday it would suspend face-to-face meetings of classes effective Thursday and that will continue until at least April 3. Roanoke College plans to resume on-campus classes April 6, pending further evaluation by college leadership.
While the virus has spread rapidly, most people who contract COVID-19, the name of the disease, do not become seriously ill based on the current situation. Still, the new coronavirus has proven deadly to those who are elderly and have underlying medical conditions.
Virginia has reported nine cases of coronavirus that are presumed positive.
In recent days, dozens of colleges across the country — including Harvard University, Stanford University and The Ohio State University — have canceled in-person classes. With so many people working and living alongside one another, universities consider themselves hubs for a potential outbreak.
From March 16 until at least April 17, Radford students are encouraged to remain at home, and on-campus residence halls and off-campus apartments will be closed, the university said.
Effective immediately, Radford and Tech discourage all international and domestic travel that is not essential.
Tech is canceling all international travel programs this summer. Tech’s center in Switzerland remains open, and faculty and students are restricted to in-country travel.
Michael Stowe , a Tech spokesman, said in an email that “students are encouraged to stay home and complete their classes online,” after the extended break, though Tech’s campuses will “remain open and operational.”
This will be the first time the university has taught all classes online, Stowe said.
“While these decisions will cause disruptions in the instructional environment, we believe these steps are necessary if we are to be responsive to the recommendations of public health officials regarding how best to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to protect the health of our community, especially for the most vulnerable among us,” Tech President Tim Sands said in a statement.
In addition to moving classes online, Tech and Radford are restricting large gatherings.
Tech is canceling all sponsored events before April 30 that may draw more than 100 people. Those include a 3.2-mile Run in Remembrance, Black Alumni Reunion and Spring Family Weekend. Tech said it will reevaluate gatherings after April 30, and anticipates that May commencement events will continue as planned.
Athletic events will continue as scheduled, in accordance with the Atlantic Coast Conference and college officials, the university said.
Radford said all gatherings with more than 75 people are not allowed, effective March 16. From March 16 through at least April 17, work-study assignments are waived , the university gym will be closed and on-campus dining services will be restricted.
Many unanswered questions remain about how decisions to move courses online will play out, particularly for international students and those without permanent homes.
Stowe said he did not have information on how Tech will address issues such as reimbursements for campus housing and dining, as well as students with on-campus jobs.
“Our primary concern right now is public health,” Stowe said.
In recent days, calls for Tech to switch over to online courses had grown, as some colleges across the country took such steps.
On Tuesday, a Tech student started a petition on Change.org calling on the university to switch classes online. An hour before Tech’s announcement, nearly 800 people had signed the petition, overshooting an initial 500-signature goal.
The provosts of both Radford and Tech on Tuesday told faculty to prepare to teach courses online in case the universities needed to go that route.
Jia-Bin Huang, an assistant professor in Tech’s electrical and computer engineering department, said Monday on Twitter that he would move his machine learning class online after spring break.
“I think it’s better to act quickly than later,” Huang said in a phone interview Wednesday morning before the university’s announcement. “Right now it’s spring break. Students are back home or even traveling to different places. And when they come back it’s possible you’ll see an uptick in the local area. That is concerning.”
Stowe said the decision announced Wednesday was made in consultation with the Virginia Department of Health and the university’s own public health experts.
Huang said he understands the dilemma that university administrators face, weighing the disruption closure would cause with the safety of people on campus.
“I can also relate to what they’re basically balancing, because we do not yet have a confirmed case in the community,” he said.
Still, Huang added, “We need to be proactive.”