FILE - Students in class, classroom, teacher

(The Center Square) – West Virginia colleges and universities are preparing to reopen for in-person classes by late August after Gov. Jim Justice signed an executive order allowing the institutions to open for the fall semester.

“After a lot of dialogue with all of our colleges and universities, I know that they are doing anything and everything they can possibly do to keep students, faculty, and their communities as safe as possible,” Justice said when he announced the order.

The reopening plans include guidelines for enhanced safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campuses, such as sanitation, social distancing and facemask requirements. Some institutions intend to amplify their virtual learning to keep the class sizes down.

In a letter to students on Monday, West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee outlined a phase-in plan that includes in-person and virtual learning. The main campus in Morgantown will begin on Aug. 26, which is a week later than originally planned and some programs might have alternative start dates.

WVU will try to preserve on-campus and in-person learning for freshman, graduate and professional students, but most upper division undergraduate classes will be offered in a hybrid format or entirely online. Lab classes and other classes that are hands on may have face-to-face classes. The university will try to ensure that seniors have access to all of the classes they need to graduate.

“As we near the end of July, we are over halfway through the year,” Gee wrote. “I am certain no one envisioned this is what our world would be like as we rang in 2020. The hope and promise we felt in January has turned into anxiety and stress as we continue to navigate a pandemic that forges onward, wreaking havoc across our country and within our communities.”

Gee said the university chose not to reopen with a fully in-person schedule out of concern that there could be a spike in COVID-19 cases, which would cause the university to pull back its in-person classes entirely. The county in which the university is located, Monongalia County, faced an increase in cases earlier this month, which was only brought back down when Justice ordered the bars to shut down again.

WVU’s campuses in Beckley and Keyser will return as originally planned on Aug. 19.

Marshall University will offer in-person classes beginning Aug. 24. The Labor Day holiday will be observed as planned with no classes, as will Thanksgiving. Following the Thanksgiving holiday, the university will have one week of online classes before having online finals. Classes will begin in-person for the spring semester beginning Jan. 19.

The university will provide every student and staff member with cloth facemasks and hand sanitizer in a return-to-campus kit. Faculty will also receive an optional face shield for classroom use.

Fairmont State University will also offer in-person classes for the fall semester. University President, Dr. Mirta M. Martin told The Center Square via email that Fairmont has students located in areas without access to high-speed internet, which would be required for online learning. She said the in-person classes will increase success for all students.

“From the very beginning, the university’s policies and protocols for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic have been rooted in safety for our students, our faculty, our staff, and our surrounding communities,” Martins said. “Our priorities have always been to protect the entire Falcon Family and to ensure that we can safely resume operations and classes this fall. As an institution serving more West Virginians per capita than any other institution in the state, we have an obligation to provide students with the face-to-face education that they rely on, and that they expect - as long as it is safe to do so.”

The university will provide students with face masks and hand sanitizer in a safety kit. Faculty members will also be given face shields. The university will use plexiglass barriers and equip all classrooms with webcams and microphones so the classes will also be available virtually for students who have to self-isolate.

Justice also has urged students coming from out-of-state to be tested before returning to campus.

Staff Reporter

Tyler Arnold reports on Virginia and West Virginia for The Center Square. He previously worked for the Cause of Action Institute and has been published in Business Insider, USA TODAY College, National Review Online and the Washington Free Beacon.