For most of us, the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic probably didn’t hit home until President Tim Sands released his initial statement on March 11.
Like tens of thousands of other students, I anxiously awaited official news from Virginia Tech last week — and like many Hokies, I, too, was deeply disappointed to learn that the rest of our semester would be moved online. Spring is my favorite time of year in Blacksburg, and there was so much to anticipate in the coming weeks — sorority formals, The Big Event, Relay For Life, commencement and more. Most of the student body was expecting to make memories that would last us a lifetime, giving back to the community that has given so much to us and spending time with cherished friends for the next two months. Instead, we’ll be spending those months shut away at home, listening to recorded lectures and conferring with our peers on Zoom.
Our situation is far from ideal, and the sadness, anger and fear that we all feel is valid.
What is not valid, however, are the selfish reactions I’ve seen across the board from fellow students. Many are still returning to the dorms, even though living in close quarters like a dormitory is a proven risk factor for the spread of illness. An unofficial survey conducted on a Reddit forum for Virginia Tech students currently places 61% of respondents (826 votes) as returning to campus — a concerning number, given that the university has officially encouraged students not to return to campus unless absolutely necessary.
The most common arguments I’ve heard are that Blacksburg is somehow safer than other cities, so we might as well come back anyway. Others argue students want to get as much use out of the money spent on their housing and dining plans as possible.
I get it — it’s frustrating to drop thousands of dollars on living accommodations and food and not be able to take full advantage of them, and with no confirmed COVID-19 cases in the New River Health District as of now, it might seem smarter to return to an area with no signs of the virus. However, there are a few important points that those who are so quick to return to campus should keep in mind.
First and foremost, Tech’s decision to move classes online was not made with solely our benefit in mind — the safety of our faculty and staff was also taken into account . The mortality rate for those ages 10 to 39 is only 0.2%, a miniscule figure when compared to the 14.8% mortality rate for those over 80. Many of our faculty and staff are at least over age 40, putting them at a significantly higher risk of falling severely ill or even dying from COVID-19 than the average undergraduate.
However, not all of our peers are perfectly healthy — those struggling with autoimmune disorders, respiratory conditions like asthma or who are otherwise immunocompromised are at high risk of becoming COVID-19 fatalities. Even those of us who feel just fine may not be as unafflicted as we believe.
Dozens of COVID-19 carriers have tested positive despite presenting as asymptomatic, a trend that means countless Americans could be sowing the seeds of the virus while they carry on with their daily lives, clueless to the danger lurking within them. Students returning from various spring break destinations, including areas that have seen many cases, will only increase the possibility that faculty and staff and other high-risk patients will catch the virus.
We also need to consider the locals whom we share Blacksburg with for nine months out of the year. Bringing the novel coronavirus to campus might simply be a temporary inconvenience for us students, but it could be a matter of life or death for permanent residents. Keep in mind that LewisGale Hospital Montgomery, the only hospital located in Blacksburg’s immediate vicinity, has just 146 beds and only 88 staffed beds, meaning beds used for general care purposes. That is already a meager number in comparison to Blacksburg’s population of over 44,000. While there are other hospitals in Christiansburg, about a 10-minute drive away, and Pearisburg, about a 30-minute drive away, residents don’t have the same immediate access to an abundance of healthcare resources as in areas like Fairfax or Virginia Beach.
That’s not to say the virus isn’t likely to come to Blacksburg at some point: Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard, predicts that between 40 to 70% of the global population will be infected over the next year. But that doesn’t give students the right to place the New River Valley’s healthcare system under unnecessary strain by adding students to the mix. With only a little over 25,000 coronavirus tests administered to American patients as of March 16 (a major disappointment in comparison to South Korea’s 15,000 tests a day), it is clear that health officials and the general public alike have no idea just how high the actual number of infected Americans could be.
I understand that those of us paying for off-campus leases might want to return to the apartments and townhomes we’re contractually obligated to; if that is the choice you make, then I would urge you to avoid downtown and stay at home as much as possible. And if “home” isn’t a safe place for you, or you are an international student with nowhere else to go, I could never hold the decision to return to Tech against you.
My qualms are with those Hokies who are viewing the transition to online classes as a free pass to make an emptier Blacksburg their social playground, ignoring the danger this poses to both locals and their fellow students who truly have no other option.
To the seniors whose last semester has been snatched away from them: your pain is understandable and real, and I hear you. I cannot imagine how it would feel to have my last few months in the best place on Earth taken from me with so little warning. However, I would encourage you to try to look past your sadness and understand that this decision was made for the sake of the greater good. Please don’t put your own health or others’ health at risk just to try to make some more memories in Blacksburg. The bonds you’ve formed during your time here at Tech are not going to instantly disappear outside of Montgomery County. Take this opportunity to get to know your friends outside of the common denominator of campus, and ask yourself what this pain can teach you in the long run.
As the daughter of an immunocompromised person and as someone who struggles with immune issues myself, I would beg those of you returning to Blacksburg to reconsider. It isn’t enough to simply avoid the elderly or those who “look” sick; my mother and I both look perfectly healthy at first glance, but you cannot understand someone’s entire medical history based off of an initial impression. A prior battle with pneumonia and an asthma diagnosis mean that I am susceptible to respiratory issues, and my parents both fall within the at-risk age category. If COVID-19 were to reach my household, the effects could be devastating, and it’s families like ours who I hope you’ll keep in mind when deciding how and where to spend the rest of the semester.
This is a terrifying and uncertain time for all of us. The nationwide closure of college campuses and public school systems is unprecedented, and it will be a challenge for professors and students alike to navigate this new territory. Now more than ever, we must lean on the spirit of “Ut Prosim” that makes us all true Hokies. Call your friends and ask how they’re doing. Be kind to your professors when they struggle to work the Zoom interface. Take the opportunity to enjoy precious free time with family at home.
It is easy to be giving and considerate when we can still do what we want when we want to. Let’s give back to the people of Blacksburg the love and charity they’ve given us by not taking resources they may need and proving to them that Hokies really do serve — even when it hurts.