Midterm Update

To: The W&L Community
From: President Will Dudley
Date: Oct. 1, 2020

We've arrived at the midpoint of this most unusual Fall Term. In a typical year, our campus would be energized by the recent influx of visitors during Parents and Family Weekend and looking forward to the respite of undergraduate reading days and law fall break. Instead, we invited parents and loved ones to attend a series of virtual events and are buckling down to finish the term without pause before Thanksgiving. It is not what we would prefer, but it is the best we can do under the circumstances — an apt motto for living through a pandemic.

After a promising round of arrival testing, COVID-19 infections on campus have been on the rise. To date, we have had 51 student cases, including 17 positive tests on September 22 alone. Fortunately, all 17 of those students were already quarantining in virtue of having been identified as close contacts of other infected students. Our system of contact tracing is working. We currently have 18 students in our dedicated Isolation and Quarantine space and another 103 quarantining in their residences or at home. Other students have completed their quarantine periods and returned to normal activity. But recent days have revealed several new cases — including the first law student and asymptomatic employee to test positive — that do not appear to be connected to previously identified clusters, which reinforces the necessity of our prevailing restrictions.

Some of you have asked whether there is a specific number of infections that would cause us to revert to fully virtual instruction. The answer is no. We can continue the term on campus so long as we have the capacity to isolate, feed, and care for our students. So far, we have managed the caseload successfully without overwhelming those capacities. None of the cases to date originated in classroom settings, which gives us reason to believe that in-person instruction can continue for the rest of the term. I am grateful for the collective efforts that have brought us to this point and urge us all to sustain our vigilance.

We could not have imagined the college experience this way even a year ago. All of us are grieving the loss of normalcy. The situation is especially difficult for many of our first-year students, who arrived on campus without the established relationships that nourish us during difficult times. But it also affects upper-division students who miss the opportunities and interactions they enjoyed in previous years. I encourage everyone to make connections with old friends as well as with the newest members of the W&L family, and to look out for those who are feeling isolated. If you or someone you know needs assistance, please contact our peer counselors, University Counseling staff, or the Carilion Employee Assistance Program.

Our community has met this tremendous challenge with its characteristic creativity and positive spirit. Students are participating in Outing Club trips, intramural sports, cooking demonstrations, drive-in movie nights, and a host of events developed by our Student Affairs staff. Clubs and organizations are introducing themselves to new students on Cannan Green, and the law school is planning a wellness week. Participation in our leadership development program is higher than ever, and the office of Career and Professional Development continues connecting students with alumni and recruiters in a wide variety of fields. Students seeking ways to get involved should reach out to Residential Life staff, Student Activities staff, undergraduate class deans or law student affairs.

Faculty are adapting to teaching in new spaces, under new conditions, and with an increasing number of quarantined students unable to attend classes in person. They are holding outdoor office hours and one-on-one Zoom calls with students in quarantine. It is especially gratifying to see classes outside taking advantage of these beautiful fall afternoons. Many different teaching modalities are being employed this term, but a common thread is the value students and faculty place on the personal connections that distinguish W&L.

We knew this term would be different. The challenges presented by the pandemic are ongoing and evolving, and it is easy to focus on what has been lost rather than the opportunities we still enjoy. I am proud of what the W&L community has accomplished thus far and I do not take it for granted. Thank you all for your contributions, cooperation, and good humor. We all look forward to the day when we can return to some semblance of normalcy. Until then, together we will continue striving to make this term the best it can be.