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Town Hall highlights health protocols, community standards

  • Sign of the times:
    Sign of the times:  A sign conveys expectations about face coverings on campus.  Photo by President Katherine A. Rowe
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Establishing shared norms key to W&M’s success this fall

As William & Mary prepares to bring students back to campus for the fall semester, the university is focused on the task of establishing new social norms in response to COVID-19.

The university is taking important measures to implement social distancing practices, enforce ubiquitous use of face coverings, enact a widespread COVID-19 testing program, ensure new levels of sanitation and cleanliness, limit the size of gatherings, shift activities outdoors and reconfigure indoor spaces.

“Above all these things, we are establishing shared norms,” W&M President Katherine A. Rowe said during a W&M virtual town hall Wednesday. “And we are establishing shared norms that don't exist nationally and regionally; they don’t even exist in town yet. We are all in this together and we must take an active role in our collective health and wellness.”

An adjusted timeline

In late July, case numbers of COVID-19 in Virginia were at levels observed during the state’s peak in April and May. On July 28, Gov. Ralph Northam announced new restrictions on private and public gatherings in Hampton Roads, which includes Williamsburg, to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

On July 31, Rowe announced the university would be adjusting the timeline for opening campus by implementing a phased return of residential students, beginning Aug. 12 with freshmen, transfers, graduate students and international students.

“From a learning perspective, we know that the best-case scenario is to have students on campus in person,” Rowe said in a message to the William & Mary community. “These prudent measures ultimately increase our ability to be together as a community by decreasing the density on campus at a critical time.”

The remaining student population is expected to return to campus in early September and begin in-person classes after Labor Day weekend. Classes will start as previously scheduled, on Aug. 19, but all undergraduate courses and some graduate courses will be taught remotely until Labor Day.

Slowing the pace of return will provide the community the opportunity to establish and systematically reinforce shared norms and compliance with the university’s Healthy Together Community Commitment, Rowe said in the message.

“To fulfill our commitment to safeguarding the health of this community, it is imperative that we respond appropriately to changing pandemic conditions,” Rowe added. “In this as in other respects, fall 2020 will be very different at W&M.”

A different kind of semester

At Wednesday’s town hall, Rowe and other university leaders outlined W&M’s public health protocols and plans for safeguarding campus and the greater Williamsburg community. Rowe was joined by Provost Peggy Agouris, chief academic officer; Ginger Ambler, vice president for student affairs; Amy Sebring, chief operating officer; Dr. Virginia Wells, director of medical services for athletics; and Carrie Dolan, assistant professor of kinesiology & health sciences.

A town hall meeting for students and families will be held online Aug. 6 at 6 p.m. and another for employees will take place Aug. 11 at 3 p.m.

“Students, when they return to campus, will notice that the campus looks different,” Sebring said. “We’re making a lot of changes to what campus looks like and how we move about. We’re investing in ways that are most effective and really consistent with what we're trying to do to create an environment that reduces the likelihood of spread.”

For example, the university is adding signage regarding safety protocols, changing the routing and patterns of travel through indoor spaces and adding tents outside to encourage increased use of outdoor space.

William & Mary is also making modifications to classrooms and dining facilities to limit the number of people in a space at any given time. Other additions include touchless turnstiles to dining facilities, plexiglass barriers and the installation of 200 hand sanitizer stations in high-traffic areas.

“We're committed to showing care and concern for one another,” Ambler said. “Recognizing that when we comply, when we wear masks and we keep social distance, we actually reassure the people around us that we care about them — and that's good for both physical and psychological well-being.”

A toolbox for new norms

Ambler said the first step toward building new social norms is education.

“We are really looking at educating first and making sure that we're clear about what our expectations are,” Ambler said. “We recognize that’s not always easy and it's courageous to step in to those hard moments. We want people to feel equipped with the skills to do that.”

She explained that the university has developed a number of training videos required for all employees and students. The series outlines hygiene practices and explains how to navigate situations in which the people aren’t upholding W&M’s community’s standards.

“We’ll talk about what it looks like to step into the hard conversations of asking somebody to please put on a mask,” Ambler said.

The community commitment applies both on- and off-campus, and the university is working closely with the City of Williamsburg to help ensure the safety of the entire community. People who don't abide by the community commitment will face consequences, Ambler said, but she hopes that by educating the campus community on what is expected, they will be motivated to follow the guidelines.

Dolan, an epidemiologist, said she developed a framework called Know Your Number to facilitate conversations around risk and new social norms.

“It came about as a way to foster a meaningful discussion about how we can all move forward together,” Dolan said. “It’s this idea that we are doing a risk assessment. It's based in non-judgment, and it's a way to start a communication.”

Dolan explained the number system is a range of risk from one to five, with one being the most conservative and five being the most lax. She encourages everyone to think deeply about where they fall in that range and have honest conversations with each other about their risk number.

“It starts out at one, where if you're one you're on complete quarantine, and then goes up to a five, where my ’five’ friends are hopping on planes and going off somewhere exotic with maybe a little hand sanitizer in their backpack,” Dolan said. “This framework really was a way to consolidate how people are feeling about their risk, and a tool that they can use to try and talk to other people about where they are at any given point.”

The Know Your Number framework fits within larger efforts to encourage self-awareness about health and wellness at the university. William & Mary recently launched a daily health tracking app as part of its Healthy Together module available via the university’s mobile application and website. The module includes several features to help users account for healthy habits and monitor their physical health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wells, an infectious disease expert, said that along with key health factors like rate of infection, test result turnaround, and quarantine and hospital capacity, the university will be tracking the effectiveness of “social norming.”

“We’ll look at how good are students at mask wearing and avoiding large gatherings and hand washing and social distancing?” Wells said. “We’ll be monitoring all of these things that we're putting in place to safeguard against infection.”