Editor's note: This editorial was updated on Aug. 7 to provide clarifications and updates.
Many in Charlottesville let go a sigh of relief after the University of Virginia announced it would delay for two weeks the start of in-person classes for undergraduates.
And many probably hope that the delay is preparatory to canceling, not just postponing, on-Grounds courses.
If students really want to return to UVa and Charlottesville, then they damaged their own cause when many of them appeared at recent Midsummers gatherings without masks and without social distancing.
That display of irresponsibility set up a wave of alarm in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. The pending all-at-once influx of some 17,000 students, a portion of whom had already demonstrated lack of concern for the community’s health and safety, raised the specter that Charlottesville-Albemarle could experience a resulting surge in the deadly coronavirus.
The UVa Board of Visitors didn’t help when it said the re-opening plan would be a test of students’ ability to self-govern by observing COVID-19 protocols. Self-governance is an honored tradition at UVa — but not always perfectly practiced, as Midsummers proved.
To be fair, the university has tried to come up with ways to ensure safety.
For one thing, it is requiring students to produce a negative COVID-19 test and to quarantine for 14 days before returning to the Charlottesville area. UVa had contracted with a private company.
Some students had said on social media that they were having trouble in both requesting and receiving those tests. UVa later said those disruptions were extremely brief in nature, and that testing was proceeding smoothly.
UVa had cited supply chain disruptions in testing materials as one of its reasons for delaying in-person classes. Those disruptions applied to local hospitals, a UVa spokesman said, which is why the university went to a private company for student testing.
A negative test and a 14-day quarantine are good requirements for minimizing the potential of a COVID outbreak. But they don’t address the possibility of students becoming infected after arrival — or before arrival, for that matter, because they failed to obey quarantine — and then spreading the virus through the high-density campus and city environment.
In addition to testing availability and student compliance with requirements, UVa says it will monitor other metrics — including infection rates and hospital capacity.
Infection rates already have jumped following the easing of restrictions on public gatherings across the state and nation in recent weeks.
We wonder how much hardship it might impose on students themselves if they are allowed back — but then are abruptly told to leave town, as occurred last spring, if COVID cases surge.
Undergraduates were slated to return on Aug. 18 for classes beginning Aug. 25. Online classes still will begin on that date, but in-person classes are pushed to Sept. 8. Students who live off-Grounds are encouraged to delay their move back to Charlottesville as well.
The announcement was made on Aug. 4.
That didn’t give students much time to pivot — but, then, nothing about this pandemic has allowed for predictability. The delay could be particularly hard on international students, for whom plans to return are complicated by visa requirements, airline schedules and other factors. UVa is making arrangements to house any students who face hardships in revising their plans.
No matter how you parse it, both the original plans and the revised plans impose some kind of burden on someone. But even though yet another change of plans would cause some hardships, UVa officials must be ready to make that move should re-opening cause increased danger to students, staff, faculty — or the community at large.