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‘We’re ready’: Community conversation outlines what to expect this fall at W&M

  • What to expect:
    What to expect:  William & Mary President Katherine A. Rowe and other members of the university community spoke about the upcoming fall semester during a virtual community conversation Wednesday.  Photo by Nathan Warters
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While there is no doubt that Fall 2020 at William & Mary will be different, the university is committed to providing a safe and inclusive environment as in-person undergraduate classes begin Sept. 8. 

That was the message of W&M President Katherine A. Rowe’s virtual community conversation Wednesday, where she invited guests to speak about what students should expect as they resume classes in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and a national crisis of racial and social unrest. 

{{youtube:medium:right|ToCv4mUs9q8, Community Conversation}}

“While Williamsburg and our campus are here to receive you and create spaces where we want you to enjoy it, it’s going to occur in a different way,” Dean of Students Marjorie Thomas said. “Different doesn’t mean bad. It just means different right now so we can be our most healthy and our most safe.” 

Protecting the safety and health of the university and surrounding communities is a top goal at William & Mary, as students and employees are required to wear masks and maintain proper physical distancing as outlined in the Healthy Together Community Commitment. The university also has a plan to manage and mitigate the impacts of any positive cases. Prevalence testing of students and employees began August 25 and results are posted daily to W&M’s public dashboard. 

“We’re actually in a good place at this moment,” Rowe said. “I say this very cautiously knowing how tenuous that could be but also with some optimism. We have taken a different path than many others and will continue to learn from our peers from around the country.” 

That different path included a phased return to campus, with new students arriving in mid-August and the rest of the student body set to return over the Labor Day weekend. The university is accentuating the outdoor spaces of its scenic campus to encourage students to be outside, although at an appropriate physical distance. 

Assistant Vice President for Student Engagement & Leadership Drew Stelljes spoke of the many ways the William & Mary campus has been transformed to accommodate students during this time where health and wellness are of utmost importance. 

From campfires to live performances at night in newly lit areas on campus, the university is creating new experiences to appeal to students. And an assortment of virtual events will be available throughout the fall semester for students on campus and those who will be learning remotely. 

“I want to let everyone know that we’re ready,” Stelljes said. “We are ready for students to return to campus, and we’re ready to support student engagement online away from campus. 

“We have been working really hard the last four or five months to get ready and we are so committed to creating a safe and engaging learning environment for every student, whether you are here on campus or you’re learning remotely.” 

Rowe said approximately 25% of the student population will attend all classes remotely this fall, while the rest will attend in-person or blended classes in some capacity. 

Students and employees on campus are required to abide by all COVID-19 safety protocols set forth by the university. 

“This is new and it’s evolving, so we’re still learning,” said Assistant Director for Health Promotion T. Davis, who produced the “I Can … I Will” COVID-19 training program to provide people intervention tools when they see potentially unhealthy behaviors. “But we do know that wearing a mask and being physically distant and washing your hands can slow the spread, so it’s going to be imperative that we’re mindful and we have to be intentional about distancing and keeping our masks on.” 

Current community concerns aren’t limited to only COVID-19. National protests, outrage and dialogue around issues of racial inequality and police brutality are firmly on the minds of W&M students, faculty and staff as well. That’s why the W&M Student Assembly, led by President Anthony “AJ” Joseph, released a plan to tackle systemic injustice. 

“It entails a lot of actions that we are going to take with the community and with students to really synthesize and develop ways that are going to make us safe,” Joseph said. 

Joseph and student leadership have been meeting regularly with W&M Police Chief Deb Cheesebro over the summer. Plans include a student advisory group to work with police and discuss ways to rebuild trust within the community, he said. This includes a community reconciliation initiative to “create opportunities where police don’t have to look like police and students can come and take part and have the ability to humanize one another and say, ‘This is how it feels when you come into my community.’” 

Cheesebro said her department is focused on being an integral part of the university community. She said she plans to have a monthly open meeting, starting virtually during the pandemic, where she can discuss concerns and questions with students and employees. The department recently released its 2020-21 action plan and has committed to sharing data and other information with the public.

Last week, the William & Mary Police Department addressed the use of unmarked police cars and casual attire for officers by the department during “party patrols” in campus neighborhoods.

"My hope for the softer look (Department police polo shirts instead of full police uniforms) was to reduce anxiety … but it did not translate that way for some students and for that I am sorry,” Cheesebro said in the post.

On Wednesday, Cheesebro reiterated the benefits of regular meetings with the community as opportunities for feedback.

“I think the most important part of those monthly open meetings will be the fact that I get a chance to listen,” she said. “And that I can hear, ‘While you came out with the best of intention trying to do something, it wasn’t interpreted the way you may have thought. And so, here’s some suggestions on how we could do it even better next time.’”

Thomas said that these weekend patrols, which include Student Affairs personnel alongside WMPD officers handing out gift cards and snacks while thanking people for abiding by the university’s Healthy Together standards, have been generally well received.

“Students were giving us air high-fives and telling us so much how they appreciated it — doing shout outs like, ‘Is that the party patrol?’ — just saying thank you because when we do this all together, it can make a difference in how we experience campus this academic year,” said Thomas.

Cheesebro also highlighted opportunities police officers, especially those working at institutions of higher education, have in effecting change. It’s something she considers when hiring. 

“I need police officers who will go out there every single day and try to help,” she said. “They’re going to say, ‘What can I do today to help a student? What can I do today to help a faculty member?’ And they’re not going to be afraid to stand up for what’s right, and they’re going to make decisions based on the values of integrity and professionalism and community engagement and fair and impartial policing. 

“And they’re going to know they can stand up and they can say, ‘You matter to us. Black lives matter.’ They facilitate the voice of the students. It’s not just about enforcement. That’s a very small piece of what we do. What we do is support this entire community. We may not always get it right, but that’s why it’s important to partner with the student body and the rest of the community.”