Freshmen reflect on semester of limited socialization

Freshmen Meghan Mastrobesti and Katie Lehmann wear masks on VCU's campus. Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore

Katharine DeRosa, Staff Writer

During a semester filled with uncertainty, freshmen at VCU navigated academic and social life while trying their best to adhere to safety precautions.

COVID-19 spread across campus throughout the fall semester, leading to an outbreak in the university’s athletics department and requiring exposed students to quarantine in empty dorm rooms. As of Tuesday, VCU reported more than 30 active cases among students and employees.

“I don’t hang out with people,” freshman mass communications major Emma Reynolds said. “All of our friends ended up being crazy partiers.”

Emma Reynolds. Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore

Reynolds and her roommate, freshman pre-nursing major Kelly Le, said they had to tighten their social circle as the semester continued. The two of them live in a suite in Gladding Residence Center.

Le said a friend caught COVID-19 at the beginning of the semester and proceeded to put themselves at risk in social situations.

“We had to kind of politely ban him from the suite,” Le said.

Le and Reynolds said that five total people hung out in their suite on Halloween, including one extra guest that didn’t live there.

The roommates said they felt safe during the semester because they wore masks when outside. 

“As long as you don’t go to the dorm ragers that people try and throw,” Reynolds said.

People in costumes walked around campus the weekend of Halloween, some with masks and some without. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines any activity that doesn’t allow for social distancing as “highest risk.”

University spokesperson Mike Porter said in an email that there were no VCU-sponsored Halloween gatherings in on-campus residence halls. He added that face coverings are required inside VCU buildings and in outdoor spaces when physical distancing is not viable.

The second week of classes brought the largest increase in COVID-19 cases with 83 reported new cases, according to VCU’s dashboard. There are currently 31 active student cases and seven active employee cases. VCU’s symptomatic percent positivity rate is 25.7%, and the asymptomatic testing positivity is 0.2%.

VCU allows students to volunteer for prevalence testing, which tests for COVID-19 antibodies. Porter said in an email that a total of 3,808 people have signed up this semester. More than 1,000 students signed up the day the program launched, and sign-ups have been relatively steady since then, Porter said.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, the commonwealth has reported 194,912 confirmed cases of COVID-19. As of Tuesday, the seven-day percent positivity rate is at 6.2%. Near Halloween, the rate rose to around 8%, and during April, the rate was near 20%. COVID-19 testing encounters in the state have steadily increased since then.

In Richmond, the average number of cases per 100,000 people has increased from 6.6 on Oct. 1 to 17.4 as of Tuesday. Twenty-seven new cases were reported in Richmond on Nov. 10.

The incubation period for COVID-19 is between two and 14 days, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Many VCU students return home for winter break, which begins Nov. 24. 

Porter said in an email that decisions regarding the university’s schedule are based on VCU’s Public Health Response Team. Classes end the Monday before Thanksgiving, rather than early December. The schedule change was announced in July as a part of the VCU’s reopening plan. 

“It is important to wear face coverings, practice physical distancing, wash your hands and avoid large social gatherings,” Porter said.

Freshman forensic science major Katie Lehmann said she has been wearing masks and avoiding large crowds. Lehmann went home for Halloween with her friend, freshman mass communications major Meghan Mastroberti. 

Katie Lehmann. Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore

Mastroberti said the two have developed a small group of friends since the beginning of the semester.

“We’re trying not to branch out too much,” Mastroberti said.

Lehmann and Mastroberti said they’re hopeful for the spring semester and their future at VCU. Lehmann said she feels good about COVID-19 since cases at VCU have stayed relatively steady after spiking the first couple weeks of classes.

In late August, VCU converted the Honors College into an extra isolation unit after an outbreak in VCU Athletics of 44 cases. 

“I kind of feel like the worst is over,” Lehmann said.

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