Across Virginia, Hokies have relied on their creativity, inventiveness, and scrappiness to prepare for the fall 2020 semester amid unprecedented conditions resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. 

At Virginia Tech’s three campuses in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area, leaders have had to adapt for unique circumstances with different challenges than the main Blacksburg campus.

“While the pandemic is global, the approach to mitigating COVID-19 requires consideration for local and regional factors,” said Virginia Tech Assistant Director for Emergency Management Andrew Marinik. “We’ve been working with leaders across the commonwealth to address their needs and concerns so that all of Virginia Tech is best positioned to achieve its mission.”

The university maintains three Northern Virginia campuses in urban areas: the Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center (WAAC) in Alexandria, the Virginia Tech Research Center in Arlington, and the Northern Virginia Center (NVC) in Falls Church, which houses the majority of the university’s academic programs for the region.

All are reconfiguring spaces and making other operational changes in order to help students and faculty to be safe.

Take the WAAC, which houses classrooms, individual studio work spaces, a library, and a wood and metal workshop for architecture students on Prince Street in Old Town Alexandria. The building will open to faculty and students after Labor Day to allow time for people to quarantine, said Susan Piedmont-Palladino, director of the WAAC. Still, the semester began virtually for all students on Aug. 24.

About half of the program’s 75 students reserved fall semester studio desks at the WAAC. Once the building opens, they will sit more than 6 feet apart and wear face masks.

“Some have very small apartments or don’t have a [home] workspace that can accommodate studio work,” Piedmont-Palladino said.

All others will work virtually from elsewhere, including in other states and even from Saudi Arabia, where three students, two of them sisters, currently are living.

Also, some Ph.D. and master’s students will have individual offices in a building next door to the WAAC that previously housed the university’s School of Public and International Affairs. 

“That gives them a place to work with a door they can shut,” said Piedmont-Palladino. “We are looking at it as a workspace rather than an instructional space.” Faculty are teaching almost exclusively online.

The library and wood and metal shop will open with restrictions on the number of people in each space, and visitors will not be allowed inside the building, she said. Additionally, new air purifiers will be installed before students and faculty return.

Kenneth Wong (right), director of the Northern Virginia Center and associate dean of the Graduate School, measures desks so that they are spaced at a 6-foot distance from others in a classroom in the Northern Virginia Center in Falls Church. Photo by Erin Williams for Virginia Tech.
Kenneth Wong (right), director of the Northern Virginia Center and associate dean of the Graduate School, measures desks so that they are spaced at a 6-foot distance from others in a classroom in the Northern Virginia Center in Falls Church. Photo by Erin Williams for Virginia Tech.

At the Northern Virginia Center, some classes have been redesigned with a hybrid approach, which includes both in-person and virtual meetings. Others are solely virtual. The center’s graduate programs cover a wide range of areas, including business administration, information technology, engineering, and marriage and family therapy. Also, the first cohort of the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus launched classes this month, with students pursuing master’s degrees in computer science and computer engineering.

The center staff spaced out the desks in half of its 32 classrooms to maintain 6-foot physical distancing guidelines, while posted signs admonishing people not to rearrange the furniture. Common areas, such as lounges and study spaces, have also been reconfigured. The extra tables and chairs are stored in the smaller classrooms, which yields significant savings versus the cost of rented storage units.

The center’s largest classroom now holds 32 students, compared with 90 previously, said Kenneth Wong, associate dean of the Graduate School and director of the Northern Virginia Center.

Most of the courses are three-hours long and are held in the evenings. Currently, no food is allowed in the classrooms.

Faculty also are equipped with their own white board markers and erasers to eliminate the need to share in the classrooms.

The center also houses a library and other administrative offices for graduate students. To minimize walk-in traffic, students are encouraged to make appointments for certain services, Wong said. As they do in Blacksburg, students also can reserve a space to study in the library.

“It really does come down to how we behave as individuals and as a group,” Wong said. “Things like mask wearing and physical distancing have a powerful effect. We have to depend very hard on these nonpharmaceutical, nontechnical interventions to make sure we keep the space as safe as possible. At the same time, our faculty have done excellent work to make the classes engaging and high-quality, no matter how they are delivered.”

In Arlington, Nick Stone, interim senior director for National Capital Region operations, and a small staff have worked with the Virginia Tech Foundation and the site’s property manager, Lincoln Property Company, to adapt the research center to allow for physical distancing and pandemic-related safety measures. 

The Arlington research center is housed in a 144,000-square-foot building with 140 offices, more than 150 work stations, 18 research labs, three classrooms, and a state-of-the-art Executive Briefing Center. The building’s ground floor is devoted to retail, and a three-level public parking garage sits underneath. That means that leaders not only had to figure out how to adapt the classrooms but also the research areas where the general public regularly interacts. 

“It’s really all about carrying on with as little risk as possible to our personnel, our partners, our students, and our clients during a very challenging time,” Stone said.

The center has responded largely due to a small but thoughtful and proactive set of staffers, including an information technology team that in February anticipated the need for headsets and adaption to online conferencing tools like Zoom. Working with the Virginia Tech Foundation and Lincoln, the facility added soap dispensers in bathrooms and at sinks and cleaning spray bottles in common areas. Staff also removed furniture from meeting rooms and classrooms to reflect their smaller capacities with physical distancing. Lincoln’s engineers also reworked the building’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system to maximize the flow of fresh air.

Stone said that, like the university as a whole, the Arlington staff also is responding to the needs and concerns of individuals. 

“Where people feel like they might be at risk, we want to make it possible for them to do their jobs in ways that minimize that risk,” Stone said.

That includes using technology to go beyond masks and plastic screens to protect the receptionist who receives the public during business hours. 

To be sure, the pandemic adaptations are creating unique learning opportunities for students. Because many university courses now are virtual, students at the WAAC are able to take several architecture courses that are offered only in Blacksburg, Piedmont-Palladino said. The WAAC also has opened several of its virtual courses to Blacksburg-based students.

Additionally, this semester two adjunct professors are teaching virtual WAAC courses, though they are based in Baltimore, Maryland, and in Richmond, Virginia. This would not have been possible without remote teaching options, said Piedmont-Palladino, adding that she feels more connected with Blacksburg faculty than ever before, thanks to weekly Zoom meetings.

“We have managed to turn a lot of things into pretty good solutions,” she said.

The pandemic also gives WAAC students new objectives. For example, some are eager to study how design can address spatial distancing and how it may change the architecture industry in the future.

“We will be talking about these issues for the entire semester,” Piedmont-Palladino said. “What kind of city should we be making? How will this change the concept of an office building? Housing? Our students are hungry to talk about these issues, not just to be passive participants.”

These adaptations are happening during a time when Virginia Tech is claiming a larger leadership role in the D.C. region. That includes development of the $1 billion Innovation Campus in Alexandria, which will play a foundational part in growing the number of computer science and engineering graduates in coming decades. Recent months have also seen significant progress by the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative, a collaborative project that aims to create a statewide ecosystem of excellence in cyber-physical systems and serve as a catalyst for research, innovation, talent development, and commercialization of technologies at the intersection of security, autonomy, and data.

“This hasn’t been a time of status quo,” Stone said. “We’ve found ways to reach out and get people involved that we haven’t before. I think we’re going to be stronger for that.”

The university’s COVID-19 policies and decisions are consistent across all of its locations, from Blacksburg to Northern Virginia. The latest university news and updates can be found at the Ready site.

Written by Mason Adams and Jenny Kincaid Boone