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Message to Faculty from Provost Clarke

Dear Faculty,

Last Friday, I met with the Faculty Senate to discuss a range of topics and issues concerning our teaching and research community. We had an especially productive discussion about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our academic programs and the outstanding faculty who make a Virginia Tech education possible. I wanted to take a moment to share with you further reflections on that discussion and thoughts about where we go from here.

With infection rates increasing across the region, we must be especially vigilant in complying with public health measures proven to be effective in reducing the risk of spreading coronavirus. Chief among these is wearing a face mask and avoiding exposure to those who are infected, facilitated by testing, contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine. When it comes specifically to testing, we have implemented a robust prevalence testing program for undergraduate students and continue to test high-risk university employees and graduate students. Under President Sands’ leadership, Virginia Tech has been and will continue to be aggressive in our efforts to combat and contain the virus, especially when it comes to protecting vulnerable individuals.

For now, our vigilance has succeeded in stabilizing infection rates in our university community, which are far lower today than they were in late September. Based on review of testing outcomes, interview of positive cases, and contact tracing, the New River Health District has advised university leadership that the recent uptick in cases in Montgomery County has been driven by community infections unrelated to Virginia Tech. More specifically, their experience is also showing that infection is not spreading from students to community members or university employees, nor is it spreading in instructional settings. We will continue to monitor these trends and maintain flexibility in the management of the university based on the latest data and science from public health authorities.

In my message to you on October 28, I asked you to review your plans for the spring semester and consider how they could be updated to provide more in-person learning. Many faculty members would prefer to deliver instruction face-to-face rather than online. At the same time, everyone’s paramount concern is the health and safety of faculty, support staff, and their students. When it comes to in-person instruction, no university has all the answers. There are countless variables in how the virus could play out in the months ahead. Our responsibility is to find every way possible to deliver a safe, high-quality Virginia Tech education and experience under these difficult circumstances.

I ask you to consider the following as you review your plans for next semester and even looking beyond:

  • First, mode of delivery impacts academic quality. While there certainly is excellence to be found in the quality of academic programs delivered remotely, we have seen a number of issues emerge with online learning including dissatisfaction of students with their learning experience (particularly asynchronous learning), the inability to engage in extracurricular activities, and a stated unwillingness to return to a residential experience in the spring.
  • Second, from a mental health standpoint, data from Cook Counseling Center indicates that the pandemic has negatively impacted students in a number of ways. Over 60% of students visiting the center report that they have struggled with academics, loneliness, overall mental health, and motivation. These experiences reflect national studies and were underscored in a letter that I received last week from the undergraduate Student Government Association that listed a number of recommendations, including a request to maximize in-person learning in the spring and to convert large asynchronous sections to smaller synchronous or in-person sections.
  • Third, in-person instruction isn’t an all-in or all-out option. I am well aware of the ongoing challenges posed by an active pandemic. But whether you are able to accomplish this safely at the start of the semester or later, we will at some time in the not-too-distant future need to make significant progress towards the resumption of in-person learning. We may need to do this before all effects of the pandemic have dissipated, which will likely be some time even if an effective vaccine becomes available and is widely used.

Please know that my encouragement to explore opportunities for more face-to-face instruction in the spring applies only to those situations in which health safety risks can be mitigated. Also, just like this semester, the responsibility for making final decisions concerning course modality still rests with faculty, in consultation with department heads and chairs.

The Provost’s Office is here to listen and support you. You have already shared requests relating to frequency of testing and availability of suitable instructional spaces, and we are taking action to address those issues. To build on this, over the next few weeks, we will share opportunities for small-group conversations to better understand the complexities of the spring semester for faculty and graduate, teaching and research assistants. These conversations will inform our planning and help us forge a successful path back to what we will feel meets the high standard of academic experience at Virginia Tech. Eric Kaufman, President of the Faculty Senate, also will be sharing an invitation to attend a discussion with Dr. Noelle Bissell, Director of the New River Health District, who can address many of your current questions and concerns.

Virginia Tech was not designed to be a university that delivers most of its education online, especially as it relates to personnel, infrastructure, revenue sources, and policies and procedures. Out of necessity, our programs are currently being delivered in a manner that makes the best of these challenging times, but doesn’t make the most of our experience, expertise and resource management. The longer we remain in this modality, the more it deepens the challenges to our instructional, research, and outreach programs and lengthens the road back to a model that fits the strengths and design of our university.

Thank you once again for your continued efforts and commitment to elevating and advancing Virginia Tech, and know that I realize that in so many ways and circumstances, these are difficult times, both at home and at work.