By Andrew Jenner, publisher, with additional reporting by contributors Sukainah Abid-Kons, and Sky Wilson
Even before many of its students even reached campus, Eastern Mennonite University sought to quash an outbreak this week when four students tested positive, although without showing symptoms. But the students’ interactions with others, who also now must be quarantined, set into motion a ripple effect, prompting EMU to delay its move-in date from this weekend until Sept. 3-6 and forcing classes online to start the semester.
In a week that also saw the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and University of Notre Dame shift from on-campus to online classes, EMU’s decision underscored just how complicated of a task that universities have to safely open their campuses amid the COVID-19 pandemic. And it comes just when most of the 19,000 JMU students arrive in Harrisonburg in preparation for that university to start Aug. 26.
On Wednesday afternoon EMU administrators notified students, faculty and staff of a two-week delay to the move-in date after four student leaders in residence halls tested positive for COVID-19. While all four were asymptomatic, all other residence hall student leaders and staff who had “sustained contact” with them are quarantining, along with a “wider group of Student Life staff personnel [who] need to quarantine out of an abundance of caution,” according to the statement signed by President Susan Schultz Huxman, Provost Fred Kniss and Dean of Students Shannon Dycus.
“We simply cannot in good faith open our residence halls with this many staff and student leaders impacted,” it continued.
As a result, in-person classes that were to begin on Tuesday will now move online, with residential students expected to return to campus between Sept. 3-6, although students who had already arrived will be accommodated.
“Though disappointing, this situation is not all that surprising nor was it unplanned for,” said Mark Metzler Sawin, a history professor, in an email to The Citizen. “All summer, our Crisis Management Team has been helping faculty and staff build plans for just such a contingency … And after seeing what happened at UNC [this] week, we all knew this was a very real possibility.”
Still, he said the development was “deeply disappointing.”
“What makes EMU so special is its close community and connections, and the first weeks of college are always such a wonderful time of reunion and new connections,” Sawin added. “I myself have two children who are attending EMU this year, including my son who is starting his first year. My heart especially goes out to these first-year students because after losing the last months of their senior year of high school–no prom, no graduation ceremony, etc.–they are now also losing this other right-of-passage in all the pomp and ceremony of matriculation into college.”
Director of Libraries Marci Frederick echoed that disappointment.
“I’m distressed at the ongoing toll that COVID is taking in our country, and disappointed that my relationships with students, faculty and staff will be distanced and perhaps awkward at times. It’s a hard way to start the fall,” she wrote in an email. “The Hartzler Library building looks a little bare with furniture spread out, but at this juncture we will be open and offering services. Library staff have done great preparation for this. The library has offered online services and collections for years, so we are prepared to keep going!”
Two EMU students said the situation comes as no surprise.
“I didn’t specifically expect a delay to happen, however I did expect to get sent home early again or be forced to finish the semester online,” said Grace Harder, a sophomore environmental science major. “There was no way EMU was going to get through the fall semester without COVID-19 cases popping up on campus.”
Senior Mariana Martinez, a peacebuilding major, said that she figured it was “only a matter of time” and had already opted out of in-person classes.
She said she was concerned for students who were already en route to Harrisonburg.
“They were urged to turn around and go home. They were told to cancel their flights. I had friends driving 10-plus hours that had to choose between halting their travel plans until September or continue their move to Harrisonburg,” Martinez said.
She said she hopes the university will offer “whatever support is needed in these next two weeks” for students whose school year is off to a wobbly start.
Sawin said the uncertain and unprecedented situation means the values the university embrace will be put to the test.
“These are unprecedented times—times that will be talked about for generations to come,” said Sawin. “We stress the importance of creativity, innovation, and resilience in education all the time here at EMU–this pandemic is forcing us to put those important ideals into practice rapidly and in very real ways, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
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