Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
One of the definitions of the word failure in Webster's Dictionary is "falling short" which seems accurate to describe the situation in Blacksburg and at Virginia Tech.
Virginia Tech and Blacksburg are falling short on many fronts that is turning people against each other hurting both the Virginia Tech and Blacksburg communities, and the cherished bond between the two.
And this conversation has to start with leadership.
Specifically, it must start with the two most influential leaders in Blacksburg: Virginia Tech President Tim Sands and Blacksburg mayor Leslie Hager-Smith.
As someone who doesn't live in Blacksburg, I don't know much about the leadership that Hager-Smith has or hasn't shown so I won't comment much on that. Blacksburg has implemented some restrictions prior to Tech students returning with the hopes of containing the spread though clearly that hasn't worked.
To my knowledge, Hager-Smith hasn't said much publicly or at least hasn't tried to work to lead together with Tech, something that likely would be beneficial for a community that has seen a significant spike in recent weeks.
However, I've seen and heard more on the Tech side, and it has saddened me greatly to see the lack of leadership.
We've all seen the rising cases coming out of Blacksburg with the New River Health District having a 2-3% positive testing rate spike into the 12-17% range which fortunately is starting to come down. While that has happened, we've seen Virginia Tech fail to take action to try to slow things down.
For example, Notre Dame had a similar outbreak and decided to shut down all in-person classes, sending a statement to encourage students to slow things down for a couple weeks to get things under control. It worked.
Meanwhile, Tim Sands has said that Tech has only 7% of the normal in-person classes but pausing that even for at least two weeks would send a strong message that would hopefully encourage students to do better and take away some potential spread from asymptomatic students in those classes.
Additionally, Sands has done a couple town hall forums which are a plus but Sands hasn't done much to really speak to students directly. Instead, he's sent out Frank Shushok to be the messenger when the university's leader should be the chief person to encourage in these situations with details being delegated to the specific people placed in those positions, not the other way around.
Shushok has done a decent job given the circumstances though his one titled "you did it, students" didn't seem the wisest even though Tech is right to celebrate the many students who have done a good job and have been responsible while not giving into fear either.
However, there also should have been an admittance that there are issues and a challenge to keep encouraging each other to stand strong and those who aren't to do better which would have likely helped the community's confidence in VT's leadership understanding the situation. I am for his message of not giving into fear and scare tactics that are completely unhealthy.
At other schools including Notre Dame and nearby Roanoke College, the heads of those schools have been the ones to take the messaging lead and be the university's face. So far, both of those schools have been able to get things under control with Roanoke College being down to two active cases as of yesterday after having 40+ positives. RC may be a much smaller school but they have proven within the region that this can be done.
Messaging and actions that send messages matter and while suspending 40 students does send a message, showing that the university is willing to take proactive action to contain things sends a stronger message that catches everyone's attention, not just select groups who know those 40.
The good news is that Tech is taking some proactive testing actions including a push for wastewater testing that has helped the University of Arizona stay ahead of the curve in preventing an outbreak as students have returned. This is a major step forward to containing and stopping potential outbreaks before they take off or even happen in addition to some of the testing capacity they currently have in Roanoke at the Fralin Lab.
While anything starts with leadership, it also goes past that to the need for the community to better in many ways.
For those who don't think COVID is serious, it is.
That doesn't mean you have to be afraid of it or panic about it because you shouldn't, but it does mean you should be responsible including wearing masks in high-trafficked public spaces and being smart about your circle of contacts. It also means encouraging each other to not panic and to be smart while not giving into fear or allowing this virus to divide you even if you may have different views.
Even if you may not like wearing a mask (let's be honest, they aren't comfortable and as somewhere who wears glasses, I have issues with my glasses fogging up), do things to help each other feel comfortable and just to love each other. Sacrificing for each other out of love is foundational to building a health society.
This includes those who are so concerned to the point that they may even harass a student not wearing a mask while socially distanced which, you of course broke to harass them about not wearing a mask.
I won't get into details about that specific story but this is the fearful reaction that we can't have. Yes, I get you're concerned but this is not the way to go about it to try to fear others when they are doing something safely anyway. The leaders may not be doing the best at leading but this doesn't excuse your actions either.
If you don't feel comfortable in Blacksburg and can leave town without affecting your semester, do so. With so few Tech classes being taught in person, there's no reason why someone that is completely uncomfortable should stay in town. Now try to make sure you potentially aren't exposed to someone with COVID to the best of your ability before you leave. But once you're confident you haven't been exposed, leave town rather than have divisions within your house that could tear up valuable friendships.
So to those at Virginia Tech and in Blacksburg, come together and do better. Don't give into fear of this virus and try to scare each other nor overlook that this is something that should be responsibly dealt with by all of us and taken seriously from wearing masks in public to understanding the spheres of people that we may spend time with in small groups.
Of course, most people reading this don't fall in either of those groups and for that, thank you for keeping that balance. Now stand strong in continuing to do that and step up to encourage others who either may not be taking this seriously enough or may be living too much in fear.
We all must take this seriously or we risk potentially hurting others and their ability to have a great fall including limiting athletes who have done all they can to try to stay safe and compete in the sports they love while doing it for way less compensation than they deserve.
If not and we keep going down this path, we're all going to regret the damage that will be permanently done and will take a long time to repair to the bonds between VT and Blacksburg that are so greatly cherished. In the process, it may also restrict and hurt the valuable businesses that help make Blacksburg vibrant with the domino effect of that being a potential economic threat to our SWVA region as a whole.
So in the spirit of Ut Prosim, do better together not giving into fear or scare tactics and being the responsible, compassionate people that make Blacksburg loved by visitors who come from near and far. From leadership on down to residents and students, let's do better because you absolutely can and I'm not just hopeful you will, but confident as well.