Preparation and flexibility will be key to this spring’s in-person learning experience at William & Mary amid the evolving pandemic, according to the university’s latest Community Conversation.

President Katherine A. Rowe led the discussion Wednesday that featured three members of the university’s Public Health Advisory Team — Dr. Virginia Wells, chief medical officer for sports medicine; Chief Operating Officer and COVID-19 Director Amy Sebring and Assistant Professor of Kinesiology Carrie Dolan.

Rowe gave an overview of how decisions are made followed by the panel answering questions from the university community. The focus was on measures that are in place to protect the health and well-being of students, faculty and staff during COVID-19 while supporting a predominantly in-person experience this semester.

Updated information is available on the university’s Path Forward website, and students, faculty and staff were encouraged to submit questions. Sebring sent an update to the campus community yesterday about protocols for the spring semester, including information on vaccination and booster shots, masking and the latest COVID-19 statistics.

A student sitting in a hammock at bottom of tree looking up at student sitting in upper part of tree
Students enjoy the many outside areas and activities around William & Mary’s campus. Plans are in place for spring 2022 to be in-person with evolving COVID-19 precautions. Photo by Stephen Salpukas

“As we’ve learned, a primarily in-person experience is what students want and need,” Rowe said. “That’s crucial for student learning, for a sense of community, for mental health and so much more that we think matters at William & Mary. Staff and faculty want that fellowship, too.”

She stressed that adjustments are constantly being made as situations change and asked that the entire community be flexible.

“We know this semester will be different from a vaccination standpoint and a culture standpoint,” Rowe said. “We are at a very strong place at William & Mary as we start this semester. We have a very experienced faculty and staff that are good at what they do. And we trust those experts on the ground to teach and to support students in the ways that they can, given the circumstances.”

Despite different virus variants and government directives currently at play, an expanded toolkit that includes vaccinations, boosters and masking is available to handle the expected surge in COVID-19 cases at the start of the semester, according to Rowe. More than 96% of students who will be on campus this semester are fully vaccinated and, as of Tuesday, almost 88% reported receiving a booster, a number that will increase this week. Almost 95% of employees have been vaccinated, and more than 77% reported receiving a booster.

Discussion questions included what can be expected during the ongoing transition from pandemic to endemic COVID-19, the process for reporting and being assigned a COVID-19 case manager if a student or employee tests positive or was exposed to the virus, and the intention to remain in-person as W&M has been since August of 2020. University officials have ordered additional test kits and KN95 masks and have plans in place to accommodate students requiring quarantine and isolation.

“Convening is crucial to our mission,” Rowe said. “We believe in being in-person; we believe it really matters. We know especially in an educational setting with faculty and staff and students working together, as we do at William & Mary, that fellowship is one of our super-powers.

“There’s also a real cost when employees and teams are not in-person, when classes are not in-person. Learning is a social activity.”

In addition to faculty being equipped with additional resources to accommodate students’ needs, Dolan emphasized that faculty and students need to be flexible with one another’s health situations. As faculty and staff may be out with illness or care-giving responsibilities, others will be covering for them, Dolan has reminded her students.

This illustrates teaching students to be change-ready as the entire university community becomes change-ready itself, Rowe said.

“I’ve never been at a place that’s more committed to ensuring that students learn and that they stay on track to their degrees,” Rowe said. “And I know every faculty member has that at the front of mind. Every staff member has that at the front of mind as well.”