Students are required to leave campus by September 7.

As the pandemic continues to rage on through the nation, many universities find it harder to open up than they initially thought. The latest university to announce a transition to virtual learning is James Madison University (JMU), in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

In the midst of 500 new COVID-19 cases reported on campus in the first week of school, the university has announced that students will be required to leave campus by September 7, and instruction will switch to online.

JMU had a return to campus plan early on in the pandemic when the campus closed in late March. The plan included the implementation of best practices, including encouraging mask wearing and social distancing. When students returned to class last week, the university put out a health dashboard to track the spread of COVID within the campus community. But many are concerned about the dashboard's potential inaccuracy as it does not include some cases, due to privacy concerns. 

Some students will be allowed to stay on campus, but will need to fill out an exception waiver. There will be some classes held on campus and potentially in person, but these classes are reserved for graduate students needing to gain accreditation in person. 

The director of residence life, Kevin Meany, has shared with the community that the move-out will look very different than move-in did. This is because students will be asked to take just what they need as there is potential for return later in the semester. 

"There's not a schedule again because we're not asking students to take everything, it's really just bagging a couple of bags grabbing your academic materials and heading home," Meaney said.

There has been opposition from other voices in the conversation both at the local and national level at university decisions to close. Some JMU students fear that being back on campus and then going home presents the potential to spread the disease further. 

Dr. Anthony Faucci agrees, noting that sending students home could be dangerous as it will only reinforce the virus spread in those communities. 

"It's the worst thing you can do," Fauci said on The Today Show this week. "Keep them at the university in a place that's sequestered enough from the other students."

What Do Locals Think? 

While many Harrisonburg residents understand the logic of not sending students home, they also stress that in a city like Harrisonburg, keeping students here as cases continue to rise will negatively impact the local community as students and the city are so closely intertwined. From student-teachers who go out into the K-12 public system to students who tutor, work, and engage in local life, many residents feel the risk of spreading the virus outweighs the benefit of having the student population in town.

 

Many of the local residents were apprehensive of the students' return, primarily because of the culture associated with JMU. Mass gatherings of students outside of class, including parties and school-led social activities, were feared to increase the spread both in the school community and local community. As students came back and cases rose to over 500 in the first week, Harrisonburg residents' fears seemed to be affirmed. 

James Madison Unversity is just one of many schools all over the nation that continue to be treading lightly as the COVID crisis continually evolves.