COVID-19 update: Restrictions loosened, but student concerns remain

Students call for mental health resources, grading changes and due process


Washington and Lee University students have been asking for change. Last week, the COVID-19 Committee and administration made decisions that satisfied several student concerns.

President Will Dudley declared Friday a day off in an email sent Thursday evening. All undergraduate classes, labs, practices and mandatory activities were cancelled.

Because of changes to the fall term undergraduate calendar, students have been taking classes without a break since Aug. 24. Reading days, which normally coincide with midterm exams in early October, were cancelled and final exams will take place before students leave campus for Thanksgiving break.

“It’s the eighth consecutive week of Fall Term and you’ve earned a break,” Dudley said in an email to undergraduate students. “Have fun but continue to be smart. Remember that gatherings are limited to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors. Wear a mask, spread out and stay local.”

Dudley also approved the COVID-19 Committee’s recommendation that the campus’s COVID-19 environment level be adjusted.

The environment level, which has been “yellow-high” since Sept. 14 was moved to “yellow-middle,” said an email from the COVID-19 Committee to Washington and Lee students, faculty, staff and parents.

“We have heard from many of you over the past few months, and we hope that by moving the Environment Level and easing some restrictions, our students will be able to continue building the lasting friendships and sense of community that are so much a part of the W&L experience, and that all of us will feel a little less isolated going into the second half of Fall Term,” said the email.

Several restrictions have been eased due to the change in environment level.

“Over the past two weeks, W&L has seen small numbers of new cases identified, largely related to one another and to those already in quarantine,” said the email. “This positive trend has relieved some of the stress on our Student Health Center, contact tracing and I/Q capacity.”

In-person dining at the Marketplace and Evans Hall reopened on Oct. 13, with additional measures to encourage social distancing. Over the past week, tents have been installed around campus to provide more options for outdoor dining.

Social gatherings are now limited to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors– an increase from six people indoors and 10 people outdoors. Face coverings and social distancing are still required.

Greek informal recruitment can resume in person, after being restricted to virtual for nearly the past month. Upperclassmen can socialize with first-years in small groups “in places other than Greek houses and residences,” said the email.

Previous COVID-19 regulations that halted in-person informal recruitment isolated first-years, said a proposal from the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Council. Upperclassmen could interact with students in other grades, but first years could not.

Restrictions have been eased, but there are still active cases of COVID-19 on campus.

As of Oct. 17, there were 12 positive results of 493 students and employees tested in the last seven days–a 2.4% 7-day positivity rate. That makes 74 positive results since Aug. 24, according to the testing dashboard.

“Recent contact tracing has uncovered larger than recommended numbers of close contacts among students,” said an email sent by the COVID-19 Committee on Thursday.

Some students are quarantining at home or with their hall in the dorms and 13 of 93 isolation and quarantine beds are in use.

The university has responded to student concerns about the academic calendar and about social gathering restrictions, but other student complaints remain.

When classes shifted online during winter term, the university offered a “credit/no credit” grading policy, under which students could choose to receive a grade for a class or to receive either “credit” or “no credit.”

More than 1,000 people have signed a petition requesting that the Washington and Lee administration offer a credit/no credit option for fall term.

“Few could have predicted the mental toll online learning would take on the W&L student body. Recognizing the challenge of online learning, schools such as Georgetown, UVA and UNC have offered their students the option to switch to a credit/no credit system,” said the petition created by Jay Walton, ‘22.

The petition argues that offering a credit/no credit grading policy will help both students and professors who are struggling with the transition to online learning and teaching.

“It is unfair to students attempting to navigate the logistical challenges of online learning to subject them to the same grading system that has existed in years past,” the petition said. “It has been significantly more difficult for students to access many resources that aid in their success. From office hours to the library, many students find themselves unable to get the help they have had access to in the past.”

During the COVID-19 Committee forum on Oct. 8, some students asked whether the grading policy could be changed.

The school’s grading policy is outside of the purview of the COVID-19 Committee, but the school is required to follow certain grading procedures in order to maintain its accreditation, said COVID-19 Committee Chair and Associate Provost Paul Youngman and Professor of Journalism Toni Locy.

“This would be a huge help for students under extreme amounts of stress,” said Ryan Luth, ‘22. “We have no breaks and are adapting to a system of learning that has been far from easy.”

The COVID-19 Committee acknowledged the mental health challenges many students have been facing this school year in its Oct. 12 email.

“We know the pandemic has made this a difficult time for all, and we are mindful of both the physical and mental health of our entire campus community,” said the email.

“The University Counseling website was recently updated with information about additional online and phone mental health support and therapy options,” said an email from the COVID-19 Committee on Thursday.