As students and faculty return to a new, mostly virtual campus environment, student organizations are finding ways to keep their clubs and members active alongside the university's COVID-19 operations.
Most meeting rooms and spaces now have limits on how many people can gather inside of them after considering the 6-feet apart social distancing guidelines (or 10-feet apart for physical activities). Events can only have up to 250 occupants as long as the spaces allow up to that many people. Activities that are considered virus-spreaders, like singing, are discouraged from happening indoors.
All of the new requirements for events are put in place to ensure that these gatherings are compliant with university, local and state COVID-19 event guidelines.
The new gathering guidelines for organizations encourage virtual meetings and events unless it is absolutely necessary to meet in person.
For groups like Solely Swing, a swing dance club that aims to further people’s knowledge and enjoyments of dances like the Lindy Hop, Blues and the Charleston, it means hosting virtual practice meetings online.
“Dance is really important not only to the officers, but to a lot of people in our community,” said Katrina Newby, vice president of Solely Swing. “It’s a lot of what brings us together, and if you take away that aspect of dancing, you often take away not only people’s fun, but also their feeling of community and their avenues to make friendship. We realize partner-dancing is not an option, so we’re just in a really fortunate position that our focus of our club has avenues to explore solo dances.”
Solely Swing is typically partnered with its sister organization, Blacksburg Swing, which hosted weekly dance practices for both group members. This year, however, Blacksburg Swing will be under the umbrella of Solely Swing to make the transition to online meetings easier for all of the members.
Their go-to plan is to have weekly Zoom lessons that are 30 minutes to hour-long sessions, depending on the availability of their teachers. They hope to use Squires Student Center’s Commonwealth Ballroom space for their possible two in-person meetings, where an instructor can teach on the stage while members are 10 feet apart on the ground. Face masks and sign-in will be used as well.
Additionally, another goal they have is to educate people about the culture and history of these dances alongside teaching them about the dances.
“Some things that people don’t realize about swing dancing is that it’s rooted in Black history,” Newby said. “With all of the social justice movements that have been happening this semester, with Black Lives Matter and social equality, it has really brought to light that a lot of the swing community doesn’t do our history justice. So that’s something we’re also going to try to move into this year, not only learning the dance moves, but also talking about the dance history.”
Newby said their club will combine the dance history conversations with the lesson meetings. Finally, they intend to make their club more accessible by removing all costs associated with Blacksburg Swing Dance and making all Solely Swing events completely free. Moreover, they’re hosting meetings on the most widely available platforms for their members, which is Zoom. The club is open not only to Virginia Tech students, but to the general public as well.
Another program that intends to stay afloat through COVID-19 restrictions is AWARE, which is a mentoring program under the Women’s Center at Virginia Tech that develops lessons and a curriculum for Blacksburg Middle School girls to teach them about topics like body image, communication, feminism and mental health.
The program has run for 14 years so far, on and off. They usually have 10-20 volunteers and typically accept applications in the spring semester. They used to work with the students every Friday, but the plans have to change now that the middle school students only meet in person for about two hours for four days a week.
“Our challenge is to try and come up with an alternative way of reaching out to these kids that is effective and meaningful for both the volunteers and for the kids,” said Jessie Meltsner, the special events projects coordinator at the Women’s Center and lead overseer for AWARE.
Furthermore, Meltsner said she feels frustrated and heartbroken about the situation.
“I’ve worked a long time to help this program get to where it is, and it’s just extraordinarily frustrating to feel like we can’t continue in forward motion the way that we’ve been going.”
At this moment, they plan on either creating videos that the students can watch on their own time or having live Zoom meetings where they teach the students.
For now, like many student organizations and their leaders, Meltsner is waiting for more instruction and the return of her members to help hash out the new semester plans.