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Climate advisory - Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success

June 24, 2021

by Virginia Palencia, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success


This advisory is based on data collected in June 2021 from a representative sample of VCU students who previously requested ADA accommodations from SAEO; they responded to a two-question email survey regarding sentiments about campus return in Fall.

VCU students responded to two prompts "How do you feel about returning to campus this Fall?" and “What are some challenges you anticipate facing as a student at VCU this Fall 2021 semester?” A total of 177 students, or 7.4% of the total sampling population, responded within a 7-day period. 

Overall, despite a mostly positive reaction, many student responses indicated mixed feelings. Such mixed responses reflect the overall ambivalence and uncertainty concerning vaccine and mask compliance, adjusting to campus, and negotiating the safety of fellow students and faculty. Finally, several students indicated resentment about vaccine and mask mandates, as well as pessimistic sentiment regarding campus return, expressing doubt that the campus return will go smoothly. These responses align with earlier surveys from the general population at VCU regarding campus return; however, this particular group of students did cite some additional concerns about access being reduced (i.e. library hours) and ensuring that accommodations remain in place.

I. Campus Return

For the first question: How do you feel about returning to campus this Fall? students were given a range of responses from which to choose: very optimistic, somewhat optimistic, neutral/unsure, somewhat pessimistic, or very pessimistic, as well as an additional option for those who do not plan to return to campus. 

In regard to campus return, slightly over half of VCU students expressed positive sentiment: very optimistic (28.4%) and somewhat optimistic (25%).  15.3% of students indicated neutral sentiment or uncertainty. One fifth of students expressed pessimism: 11.9% indicated that they were somewhat pessimistic and 8.5% expressed they were very pessimistic. Finally, 10.8% of students stated they were not planning to return in Fall.

II. Anticipated Challenges

In regard to resources, the majority of respondents felt working with a SAEO was very helpful (59.1%) or somewhat helpful (27.8%). However, after controlling for those who did not need other resources, the majority of respondents reported they were unaware of the following services: learning specialist meetings, alternative format material support, assistive technology support services, and interpretive services. This may suggest a need for clarification or communication of what services are available to students.

For the second question: What are some challenges you anticipate facing as a student at VCU this Fall 2021 semester, students were given the option for open response. Student responses were characterized along five themes: adjustment; fear of noncompliance; anxiety about health and safety; resentment; and concerns about access and accommodations. In the following section, examples of each theme are provided.

Of all the responses, adjustment was the most cited challenge. 33% of respondents expressed concern about adjusting to in-person classes, new routines, and social aspects, such as getting used to being around other people again or making friends. Another aspect of adjustment that concerned some students was navigating housing, jobs, and finances with campus return.

The second cited challenge was vaccine, mask and social-distancing compliance. 23% of respondents expressed concern about the noncompliance of others, whether it was social distancing, crowd-control, or not following masking and vaccine protocols. Such responses suggest a lack of clarity on how mandates will be enforced.

Health and safety was the next concern. 11% of respondents were concerned about health in regard to COVID variants, potential new outbreaks, and the safety for those who are immunocompromised or live with someone who is immunocompromised. Some respondents indicated concern for mental health, and cited feeling “overwhelmed.”

Some respondents (8%) expressed resentment about vaccine and mask requirements. Such students cited differences from the CDC guidelines, a desire for the mask to be optional, or concerns about the mask in certain types of classes (i.e. music).

Finally, some students expressed concern about access and accommodations with campus return. Students also reported mixed sentiment regarding online learning, with some students preferring the online format, and others expressing a strong desire to learn in-person. 

Adjusting to the New Normal

  • "Anxiety about being in person and other people not understanding that anxiety."
  • "Re-adjusting to the differences in in-person instruction and testing. I feel that I will need a lot of time to re-train myself and re-build different study habits etc."
  • "The transition back to in person classes I think will be the hardest thing for me. It’s a change for what I’ve done for 3 semesters after we transitioned in Spring 2020."
  • "Being seen as an individual and making connections with professors/fellow students."

Fear of Noncompliance 

  • "Dealing with students who don't take the CDC guidelines seriously."
  • "Honesty of faculty, staff, and students in being vaccinated. How are we going to know if someone in the class is vaccinated? What is the college going to do to make sure the unvaccinated stay in a face mask for the semester? "
  • "Coming back to in-person classes might exacerbate tensions between some teachers and students. To top it off, the past year has highlighted that education online is functional and I doubt everyone will be willing to give it up so easily."
  • "I am immune-compromised and fear for my health if I return. I am vaccinated but still at elevated risk and worry that my peers won’t take proper precautions."

Anxiety about Health and Safety 

  • "My own anxiety being around unmasked classmates."
  • "I believe that the biggest challenge will be crowd control. I don't know if it's completely safe to have concerts or parties just yet, and that might be the cause of new strains spreading."
  • "Figuring out how social distancing will work in some studio spaces and how the newer strain of COVID might affect things since the vaccine is only partially covering it."
  • "I worry of another outbreak on campus. I would love to return to normal campus functions, but as the weather cools down, the virus will become more volatile. Not masking, even if vaccinated, could cause another mid-semester campus shutdown due to the variant strains infecting the student population."


  • "How VCU will respond to the CDC guidelines as VCU is already ignoring them for vaccinated individuals and still demanding they wear masks."
  • "Wearing masks in class as a music student. If we are all vaccinated, I don’t see the point. It should be optional."
  • "The requirement of masks if not vaccinated, the requirement of vaccination, the lack of care for health for the general population of students, overall lack of online classes...My medical conditions don't allow masks nor the vaccine. The classes I need are all in person. What am I to do? "
  • "I’m not happy at all about the mandatory covid vaccine."

Access and Accommodations

  • "Accessibility for students with disabilities, continued safety for those with disabilities, mental health as we transition back and lack of understanding concerning mental health from professors."
  • "Accessibility due to chronic illness, safety due to COVID as a high risk person."
  • "Honestly, I don’t really want to go back yet. I’ve been taking all online courses and have been able to manage really well! "
  • "I appreciated the virtual learning flexibility."
  • "Possible shortened hours at the library, lessened access to resources."

Summary Recommendations

  • Provide supports for helping students adjust to campus life in regard to mental health, as well as in-person instruction. Develop opportunities for students to engage socially with their peers in a safe manner.
  • Outline VCU’s requirements for the vaccines, mask mandates, and social distancing. Provide clarity and guidance for those who may be exempted. Provide clarification on how such mandates will be enforced.
  • Provide clear guidance on campus protocol in the event of another outbreak.
  • Communicate how VCU will continue to support the accommodations and access requirements for this population of students.

About Climatext. VCU’s Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success (IES) administers Climatext as part of the university’s proactive monitoring and response plan to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Climatext assesses student sentiment resulting from their information exposure and experiences related to COVID-19. Sentiment scores range from negative-to neutral (-1.00 to 0.00) and from neutral-to-positive (0.00 to +1.00). Climatext produces a real-time data summary for the general student population as well as student subpopulations. Data are collected and coded using proprietary software conceptualized and developed by Sam Yerkes, Jim Yucha, and Aashir Nasim. Results are used to inform the university’s strategic communications efforts and support services that address student needs.