Of the area’s four colleges and universities, three will soon have students returning to campus for another school year.
James Madison University students begin returning one week from today, Bridgewater College students on Thursday, and Eastern Mennonite University students on Aug. 25. Only Blue Ridge Community College has elected to have online-only learning this semester.
Neither EMU, JMU nor Bridgewater College will require students to be tested for COVID-19 prior to returning to campus, a choice that other schools in the state have made to ensure safety and limit outbreaks of the virus. All three have cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for their reason for not testing.
“Both the CDC and the Virginia Department of Health strongly recommend against testing asymptomatic individuals who have no concerning contact history,” JMU’s website says. “Testing materials continue to be a limited resource, and lab turnaround times are significantly delayed when more tests need to be processed. JMU believes in appropriate stewardship of supplies and preserving testing capabilities for symptomatic individuals and those exposed who desperately need the test results quickly.”
Abbie Parkhurst, associate vice president for marketing and communications at Bridgewater College, cited similar concerns over testing asymptomatic students. She said the college’s reopening plan provides for the safety of students, faculty and staff consistent with CDC and VDH guidance, and includes policies on face coverings, physical distancing in classrooms and dining areas, and a policy permitting students who do not want to reside on campus and/or take courses in person the opportunity to live off-campus and learn remotely for the fall semester, among other things.
Shannon Dycus, dean of students at Eastern Mennonite University, said of the choice to not test students prior to the start of school: “Significant planning and partnerships have enabled us to respond to on-campus COVID needs as students arrive. Daily symptom tracking, efficient testing, and spaces for quarantine and isolation will allow us to support the most relevant health realities of our student population.”
Robert Roberts, a political science professor at JMU, is not convinced that not testing students before arriving on campus is the best course of action, citing the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech’s decision to test students.
“You’re going to have large numbers of students who are asymptomatic,” Roberts said. “If you test beforehand, you at least have a high probability of catching the super spreaders and can get them into quarantine.”
If JMU isn’t going to test students, Roberts said the university should at least wait two weeks after students move in before starting classes, allowing for time to see if any outbreaks occur.
“If the students behave like they did in the spring and have their parties, I suspect you’re going to have a major outbreak in three weeks,” Roberts said.