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An Open Letter from WVU Parkersburg President Chris Gilmer Regarding COVID-19

An Open Letter from WVUP President Chris Gilmer Regarding COVID-19

Click here for updated COVID-19 protocols.

On Friday, August 27, I watched as Governor Jim Justice paid heartfelt tribute to 18 West Virginians lost to COVID-19 in a short period of time, and I felt tears, real ones, in my eyes as he implored all of those listening never to consider them as statistics, or the more than 3,000 West Virginians who have died from this pandemic so far. They are real people with real names, and their absence leaves real holes in the hearts of many.While far too many people in this nation are making COVID-19 a political issue and a cultural war, it is not a Democratic, or Republican, or Independent issue, a liberal or conversative issue; it is a human issue, a threat that every one of us has in common even if we view it differently. We set aside all of these considerations at West Virginia University at Parkersburg, and whether popular or unpopular, I do what I was called here to do, what I have been trying my best to do every day since this pandemic started. I lead, with proper and diligent consideration, but without hesitation, and I take responsibility for my decisions even as I do not yet know the outcomes of them.

In summary, beginning September 7, 2021, as we return from the Labor Day holiday, WVUP will shift much of its instruction fully online and will implement remote work assignments for more employees. All locations will remain open, and all essential offices will be staffed. We are simply shifting the majority of our class instruction and other faculty responsibilities and some of our staff workforce to remote instruction and remote work assignments to minimize the number of people on our campuses and to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Faculty members will be able to use Zoom rooms and other campus-based tools for instruction, may still meet with individual students and very small groups of students on campus, and will receive professional development opportunities and other needed support to fulfill their absolutely essential role with and for our students. We will take increased measures to protect our staff by minimizing the amount of physical contact and exposure. Students will be able to come to campus to use computer labs, Internet, counseling services, and other needed services. Students should be informed by faculty members prior to September 7 about how specific classes will be taught. We will do our best not to leave any of you unsupported.

Some limited exceptions will be made to allow face-to-face instruction in technical programs and labs, and perhaps in field experiences and clinicals, for which there are not viable online options. The week of August 30 through September 3 is serving as a time of transition. If the pandemic quickly abates, we will consider a return to face-to-face instruction later in the semester, recognizing the considerable challenges that such shifts cause.

Just weeks ago there were about 1,000 COVID-19 active cases per day in West Virginia. Today there are more than 18,000 active cases, growing by 500 to 1,000 cases per day, each one of them someone’s parent, someone’s child, someone’s spouse, or someone’s friend. In fact, during a recent seven-day period the number of in-state reported cases grew by approximately 4,400 people, and during one 24-hour period the number of West Virginia’s active cases grew by 1,328–old people, young people, unvaccinated and vaccinated. While the vast majority of those infected are unvaccinated and the vast majority of those who develop severe or deadly illness are unvaccinated, more and more vaccinated people are getting sick and transmitting the disease to others. My position about the importance of vaccination has not changed, and I continue to strongly encourage everyone to consider becoming fully vaccinated.

While most of WVUP’s students and many of our employees are young, and while the rate of severe illness and death is significantly lower for young people without co-occurring health problems, we are seeing serious illness and death even among young and healthy people, and young and healthy people can actively spread the disease among themselves and to older and more vulnerable colleagues, family members, and the public. For several weeks, all seven counties in our primary West Virginia service area, plus Washington County in Ohio, have been rated high exposures on the tracking map of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with one or two counties occasionally dropping into the substantial category. Once again, all are rated high. Remember that our conditional mask requirement remains in place for all WVUP facilities at any time that either Wood County or Jackson County is rated high or substantial spread by the CDC, and we will continue to update the community each Friday about the protocol for the upcoming week.

Since we started fall classes in-person on August 9, we have had 12 reported COVID-19 cases and 319 known exposures on our campuses. Keep in mind that the great majority of these exposures will not turn into active cases, but the number is still alarming. While it was necessary to attempt a typical face-to-face fall semester, it is equally necessary that we now shift to a modified virtual approach. It was necessary to try to have a typical semester because face-to-face or hybrid instruction is generally a richer learning experience for our students, no matter how well we do virtual instruction; it was necessary because we need to be responsive to our students, and the great majority of them seemed to want a traditional, on-campus college experience; it was necessary because many of our students and some of our colleagues have felt isolated through lack of human contact and have developed mental health challenges during the pandemic; and it was necessary because we are residents of a state and local community which has set the norm that providing face-to-face learning is the preferred approach. Since many students are required to isolate from campus due to exposure and will not receive face-to-face instruction during the time of isolation, and since many more students would likely be quarantined if we continued extensive face-to-face learning, many if not most students will actually receive better instruction online until the pandemic abates.

Now it is necessary, even as we pay respect to all of these valid considerations, that we reaffirm the position WVUP has taken from the start: we put public health and safety first, and with the pandemic shifting in a negative direction, new approaches are required. We took deeper precautions ahead of state and national trends in March of 2020, and we are doing so again now. While I consider this decision to be appropriate and necessary, when I am called to judgment for the decisions I have made as a leader, as every leader is invariably and appropriately called, I would rather account for an overreaction than an underreaction when your lives and those of your loved ones are on the line.

I have spoken to the leadership of our Board of Governors, and they are in support of this decision. They join me in thanking you for your unselfishness and your resilience and in applauding this community for moving forward in so many positive ways even in a time of national crisis. We did not choose the pandemic, but we can choose the way we react to it. At WVUP, that reaction will be one of productivity, hope, and unity rather than despair, defeat, and divisiveness.

In closing, students, parents, employees, and community members, we make these difficult choices in an attempt to promote your safety, and we will do our very best to ensure the highest quality education for our students and service to our communities in these difficult times. I know that everyone does not agree with our decisions, and I fully respect each of you who holds a different view. My hope is that we can all rally together around the main point on which we all agree–uplifting our students to help make their dreams come true.

Warm regards,