Local Universities Try Balancing Public Safety And Students' Return

Oct 1, 2020

James Madison University first-year student Riley Brown and her mother Carol Brown pack up to move Riley back home in September, just over a week after in-person classes started. JMU says it plans to resume in-person instruction on Oct. 5.
Credit Calvin Pynn

As universities in our area experiment with in-person learning and bringing students back to campus during the pandemic, communities that support and surround those campuses also live with the realties that come with an influx of students. WMRA’s Bridget Manley reports.

As local universities make decisions in the post-COVID experiment of in-person learning, those living in the towns surrounding these schools carry mixed feelings about students returning.

Balancing a healthy economy with the public safety of those who live and work in college towns seems a monumental task, but officials in both Charlottesville and Harrisonburg say they are able to work closely with school administrations to slow the spread of the virus.

The city of Harrisonburg approved an emergency ordinance for off-campus parties and gatherings in August in anticipation of an influx of students.

Even as JMU abruptly sent home most students living on campus in mid-September following a massive spike in cases, most of the student body reside off-campus and remained in Harrisonburg.

Michael Parks is director of communications for the city of Harrisonburg.
Credit Michael Parks

MICHAEL PARKS: We first want to make sure everyone is aware of the rule, and everyone gets a warning that ‘you’re in violation of this ordinance, you need to break up this event.’

Michael Parks is Harrisonburg City’s Communications Director. He says the city is taking the gathering ordinance seriously, issuing strong fines to anyone involved. 

PARKS;  If we have to come back to an event like that, and they have not followed the warning and not disbanded, that’s when you can see a fine up to $500 for all the event organizers, and $250 for every event attendee. JMU has also made it clear that if this event is student organized, that any of the lease holders can be suspended as well.

The University of Virginia chose to delay in-person learning for two weeks, but ultimately brought students back to classes on September 8th. Positive COVID-19 cases soon followed. 

Brian Wheeler is director of communications for the city of Charlottesville.
Credit Brian Wheeler

BRIAN WHEELER: Well, with the students coming back, we’ve seen an increase in positive cases, which is to be expected. Because, you know, thousands of people are coming back to Charlottesville from all over the country and the world.

Brian Wheeler is the Director of Communications for the City of Charlottesville.

WHEELER: I think anecdotally, our city council has received feedback with people from our community, concerned about the return of students. There are also business community members who are concerned if they don’t come back. We have to be really thoughtful and safe about how we reopen, and what measures we take to ensure health and safety.

But once vibrant music, dining, shopping and bar scenes have been muted for months. Are local establishments terrified about the fate of their business without student revenue?

ANDREA DONO: Yes. Absolutely.

Andrea Dono is Executive Director of Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance.

Andrea Dono is executive director of Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance.
Credit Courtesy of Andrea Dono

DONO: You know, we saw that in the summertime. Whenever we have the students leave, faculty are not in town, it’s noticeable. It’s visibly noticeable. I think it’s a real concern because that’s such a significant part of our population and our customer base, and it’s going to be felt.

And businesses who are trying to keep the communities safe while remaining open are finding it ever harder to operate. After several people who work in downtown Harrisonburg tested positive for COVID in September, LoLa’s Delicatessen decided to shut its doors for a few days until their team’s test results had come back.

LAUREN PENROD:  It’s hard. I feel like everyone is making impossible decisions right now.

Lauren Penrod is co-owner of LoLa’s. She says that while the short term effects of COVID have hit her business, she is incredibly worried about the long term effects of revenue shortages on institutions such as JMU, and the consequences that will have on the local economy.

PENROD: I feel like some of these industries and places that are getting hit a little bit later - and JMU is definitely one of them - you know, how are all those employees going to react? What’s going to happen down the road, and then how is that going to effect how they spend their money? And then how long is it going to take for all of this to come back?

Lauren Penrod is the co-owner of LoLas Delicatessen in Harrisonburg.
Credit Lauren Penrod

And while many institutions, businesses, and elected officials are making impossible decisions every day to maintain balance between a healthy economy and public safety, the best way to help that balance is still to follow CDC guidelines. 

PARKS: The same rules are applying since March. This has not come to an end. We all need to wear our masks. We all need to socially distance. We all need to wash our hands. And please stay home if you are sick. This is not a time to let up.