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Prince George
County, VA

At Richard Bland, students' return brings excitement, nerves during COVID-19 pandemic

Jeff Milby, The Progress-Index

PRINCE GEORGE — The COVID-19 pandemic has upset many of the rhythms of daily life in 2020, but on Thursday, a common scene for this time of year took place at the Richard Bland College of William and Mary: eager students and nervous parents, wheeling carts piled up with personal items into dormitories to begin the college year.

Though it was a return to normalcy, signs of the ongoing pandemic were present. Masks are required on campus, and social distancing guidelines were generally adhered to on Thursday, with conversations taking place at a distance.

"There's some anxiety, no question," Richard Bland President Debbie L. Sydow said of bringing students on to campus during the pandemic. "I think all of us are feeling that, the students included, the parents. They want to be sure that we have a safe environment."

Sydow expressed confidence, though, that a safe environment is exactly what Richard Bland created, thanks to precautions and procedures that have been put in place following five months of work, in what the college is calling the "Statesmen Safe and Secure" plan.

Richard Bland has two dorms for students, with a total capacity of around 400 students. That capacity has been lowered this year to 217 total students this year. Students will no longer share dorm-rooms, as they typically would, meaning one-student per room. Classes will be in a hybrid form. Some classes will be in-person, while others will take place online.

"It's that flexibility that gives me confidence that we are going to be a college that remains open and continues to serve our students in a safe environment," Sydow said.

A sign displays regulations for COVID-19 safety at the dorms of Richard Bland College.

Richard Bland's location also plays a part in her confidence. In a rural location, Richard Bland is a large and spacious campus of 750 acres, Sydow said. There are not bars or other off-campus locations within walking distance where students could potentially gather.

"It's a false comparison," Sydow said, of Richard Bland and larger institutions.

Additionally, should a student catch the virus, Richard Bland has created quarantine space with room for 75 beds. In order for an outbreak to be officially declared, according to Sydow, 85-percent of those beds would need to be filled, or about 64 students. That means for Richard Bland to declare a COVID-19 outbreak on campus, nearly 30 percent on the 217 on-campus students would need to catch the virus.

Evander Gonzalez, a 19-year-old sophomore marketing major from Colonial Heights, said that he thrives on the social activity that living on campus can provide, which is why he decided to return to campus this year even though all of his classes have moved online. Gonzalez is also a resident assistant, a role in which he will monitor the dorms.

"Who isn't (nervous about the virus), honestly?" Gonzalez said. "However, we're trained now to deal with any situation and scenario to take place, so honestly I'm ready to take on the challenge."

Sarah Moncure, a sophomore international relations major from Fredericksburg who hopes to go on to William & Mary, is also a residence assistant. She said that she was intially apprehensive about returning to campus.

"I can only control what I do, to an extent," she said about her feelings on being a residence assistant. "I don't know what the people's whose rooms I'm going into have been doing, so the best I can do is everything I can to protect myself, and therefore protect everyone else."

Ultimately, Moncure was reassured after reviewing the precautions Richard Bland has taken. "I would not be here if I wasn't confident in it," she said. She also decided to take on her role as a residence assistant to help create an environment that benefits students who would be unable to take classes from home, a big reason Richard Bland is taking the risk of bringing students on campus during a pandemic.

"Not every student can be successful in an online environment," Sydow said. "Many students want that full college experience. They want to be able to have a learning environment that gives them opportunities to engage with their peers, to engage with faculty, to engage with our staff and activities. That's the piece that we felt strongly, and I think the students and parents feel strongly, that's an important part of the educational experience."

Jeff Milby can be reached via email at Follow him on twitter: @JeffMilby.