VMI only tests the symptomatic, sees fewer cases than W&L
By Grace Mamon
Lexington’s two universities took different approaches to reopening during the pandemic this fall, but both are dealing with similar case numbers.
Virginia Military Institute, which did not test returning cadets on arrival, has 1 active COVID-19 case among cadets and and 2 among staff. There are 49 cadets in isolation.
VMI spokesman, Col. Bill Wyatt, said the school expected to have some positive cases.
“We came back here thinking not if the virus comes, but rather when the virus comes,” he said. “We knew we would be operating in a COVID environment.”
Washington and Lee University, which did test all returning students before move-in, has 13 positive cases. An email to the student body on Wednesday mentioned “continued lack of compliance with social distancing, face coverings and expectations for social gatherings.”
VMI has seen 14 positive cases in both cadets and staff since May, and five since move-in in August. There have been no employee cases since school began.
The military school is testing only individuals who feel symptomatic. Close contacts of individuals who feel symptomatic will be quarantined either on campus or in nearby hotels.
“The Virginia Department of Health did not recommend testing all college students before they came back, so we did not do that,” Wyatt said. “Our cadets are required to monitor their symptoms…and a symptomatic individual will be tested.”
In the meantime, cadets must wear face coverings, practice social distancing and stay on post. They can leave only for extenuating circumstances –or to run.
“For physical training, they are allowed to go off post,” Wyatt said. “It is possible that you’ll see some of our cadets running around town.”
This may be a cause for concern for some members of the Lexington community. But Pat Thompson and Rich Hubbard of Rockbridge County said as long as they’re outside, they feel safe.
The pair walked through Washington and Lee’s campus just before noon on Monday without masks, though Thompson said she always wears one inside.
“I keep up on everything. I’m probably a coronavirus junkie,” Thompson said. “I avoid people who are obviously symptomatic.”
She said she was concerned at first when she heard that both schools would be reopening in person this fall, especially because she and Hubbard are both elderly. But now, she isn’t as worried.
“I feel really safe,” she said. “And we normally try to time [our walks] so there’s not as many people out.”
But students streamed by on either side of Thompson and Hubbard on the footbridge over the tennis courts.
“We misjudged today,” Hubbard said.
Washington and Lee students are also discouraged from leaving Rockbridge County and visitors are not allowed inside campus buildings.
The university is conducting surveillance testing on a weekly basis, as well as symptomatic testing and monitoring wastewater. Only one student tested positive upon arrival.
There were no other cases until last week, when a cluster of three related cases were identified. On Tuesday, three more students tested positive.
The university responded by lowering the number of students allowed in indoor and outdoor gatherings and eliminating indoor on-campus dining.
VMI on the other hand, is not totally shying away from large gatherings.
Cadets, joined by national and local media, filled Cameron Hall on Sept. 10 for a speech by Vice President Mike Pence. Pence spoke about VMI graduates who were lost on 9/11, as well as some who volunteered as first responders, and the current administration’s support for the military.
Wyatt said the school is planning to have at least one more speaker this term, though probably not as prominent as the vice president.
“That’s an important part of our cadet leadership development is bringing in those prominent dignitaries who can chare their experiences,” Wyatt said.
Washington and Lee has been avoiding bringing speakers to campus in person, opting instead for Zoom panels and virtual visits.
Both schools are hoping to finish the term on campus.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, so we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Wyatt said.
Last winter was the first time VMI had offered an online class, which was a big change from the school’s typical environment. Most classes remain face-to-face at VMI, with 44% in-person, 34% hybrid, or meeting at least once a week in-person, and the remaining 22% completely online.
“VMI is a different type of school than most other colleges and universities,” Wyatt said. “We’re a military institution with a military mission and that’s really hard to do in an online environment.”