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Community conversation focuses on W&M’s successes and the challenges ahead

  • Flexing new muscles:
    Flexing new muscles:  William & Mary will carry lessons learned during its successful fall semester into the spring.  Courtesy photo
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William & Mary President Katherine A. Rowe hosted a two-part virtual community conversation Nov. 20 about the challenges and opportunities W&M faced in the fall and how those experiences are informing decisions for the spring semester. 

For part one on planning for the spring, Rowe’s guests were Provost Peggy Agouris, Vice President of Student Affairs Ginger Ambler, Chief Operating Officer Amy Sebring. The second portion of the conversation featured members of W&M’s Public Health Advisory Team, including Assistant Professors Carrie Dolan and Iyabo Obasanjo, Chief Technology Officer Corinne Picataggi, Dr. David Dafashy, medical director and staff physician for the Student Health Center, and Dr. Virginia Wells, chief medical officer, director of medical services and team physician for Tribe athletics. 

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Rowe and the panelists recognized what the university did well to curtail the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on campus while also acknowledging the obstacles that lie ahead. 

“Even as our country now faces sobering public health challenges—in many ways more sobering than we saw in August—with much vulnerability and much worry, the William & Mary community can take a moment for gratitude for what we’ve achieved and for what we’ve learned together,” Rowe said. 

“William & Mary is in the thick of planning for the spring. We are building on what we learned from the fall. We are going to be flexing the new muscles we’ve grown together for adapting, teaching and social life and working life and research.” 

Here are five main takeaways from the conversation: 

A community effort

There were many reasons for William & Mary’s success at reducing the impact of COVID-19 in the fall, including a resounding commitment from students, faculty and staff. The university’s Healthy Together Community Commitment emphasized preventative measures such as mask wearing, physical distancing and hand washing, and the university employed robust testing measures to help ensure a healthy environment. 

“It took the entire community,” Ambler said. “We would not be here today where we are if everyone in the William & Mary family had not done their part.” 

Dafashy emphasized that prevention is the best way to mitigate COVID-19, especially in an environment where infected persons could display few, if any, symptoms. 

“I think the COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example of the old adage, ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,’ and certainly one of the success factors has been William & Mary’s incredibly positive response to the Healthy Together initiative,” Dafashy said. 

Rowe commended the extraordinary number of staff members who shifted duties and responsibilities across the institution to address new and pressing needs, including nearly 200 staff from University Advancement, student affairs and other departments across the university to help with testing, case management and quarantine and isolation housing. 

“It’s been a revelation in what we can achieve together,” Rowe said. 

A range of testing measures

William & Mary continues to provide a range of COVID-19 testing measures, including prevalence testing and wastewater testing. The university is also providing more than 4,000 voluntary exit tests for those leaving campus for winter break or wanting to get tested before the Thanksgiving holiday. 

According to W&M’s COVID-19 dashboard, the university recorded only 64 positive cases for students out of 24,924 total tests administered since August and only 15 positive cases for employees out of 2,343 tests during that same time.  

“The vast majority of the relatively small number of cases that we had were detected not through symptomatic testing but through asymptomatic testing,” Dafashy said. 

Obasanjo said the university’s wastewater testing “has been a revelation.” 

“Combining it with the prevalence testing has allowed us to target dorms for population testing,” Obasanjo said. “It has just opened up a whole lot of avenues that we didn’t even realize we could use it for, and it has been very helpful.” 

Focus on mental wellness

William & Mary is committed to keeping the mental wellness of students, faculty and staff a priority throughout these difficult times. 

This fall, the university developed new resources to help the university community, including a virtual wellness website that has been accessed over 22,000 times and provides many different options for virtual connection, and the Ways to Flourish podcast that focuses on wellness strategies and is available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. 

Ambler said the university is working on a new application for the spring, a research-based tool that “empowers students to build authentic social connections and addresses the mental health impacts of loneliness.” 

With the standard set for operating under a pandemic, students and faculty should expect a slower pace academically in the spring, Provost Peggy Agouris said. 

And while a week-long spring break will not be possible because of the pandemic, the university will embed six days of rest into the spring curriculum, rather than the customary five consecutive days. 

“Overall, we think it is very important that we embed in our semester days and opportunities for other connections to be formed outside the classroom and to have programs in place that will enable our students to both feel that they are taken care of by the institution but also have the freedom to relax,” Agouris said. 

Looking ahead

Prevention, testing and case management will remain important pillars of William & Mary’s COVID-19 response for the spring semester. 

Sebring, who chairs the university’s Public Health Advisory Team, said the university community should expect those areas to evolve to coincide with local, state and national health guidelines. 

“One important distinction is making sure we’re really circling back to our core principles,” Sebring said. “Public health still has to be our first and foremost focus, while recognizing that we need to deliver on our mission, and it’s really important to do that in a way that is supportive to our students and provides the faculty the resources that they really need.” 

Combatting COVID fatigue

Rowe and the panelists urged the university community to stay on track with the many safeguards that helped the campus mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in the fall. 

“It’s been tough to be accelerated this fall, but we had concerns about a late fall-winter surge,” Rowe said. “Those concerns have proved valid, and the fact that students are able to go home now in advance of what may be the worst of this surge is a great relief, I think, certainly to us and to many families.” 

Diligence in testing and in taking the proper preventative measures will be critical in successfully navigating this pandemic, said Wells. 

“We can still engage with one another if we just do so safely, and I think that it's important to remember,” Wells said. “We're trying to protect each other and care for each other.” 

Rowe said she and university leadership will continue to make decisions based on science and data and the guidance of a multitude of resources, including its own medical officials and COVID-19 response team, as well as the Virginia Department of Health and national public health guidelines. 

“The first thing to know is that we are prepared to adjust as we did in the fall,” Rowe said. “I'll remind everybody that because of the spike in August, we did make adjustments in the fall and will be using the same process in January, continuing to apprise our community of what the context is and how we plan to make decisions.”