HARRISONBURG, Va. -- Carol Duenas moved her daughter, Heather, into a dorm at James Madison University just last week.
The Stafford freshman will now return home after JMU administrators announced on Tuesday their intentions to transition primarily to online learning. Students living in dorms will also be asked to return home after more than 500 COVID-19 cases were reported on campus.
"In-person classes will transition online no later than this coming Monday, Sept. 7. Additionally, residents will be asked to return home by Sept. 7 unless they seek an exemption to stay," the school said in a release.
Duenas said she expected the decision after dropping her daughter off on the Harrisonburg campus.
“I noticed there was no social distancing,” she explained. “It was expected. There was too many people in the dining hall, as well.”
The decision to transition classes online was not made lightly, the school said.
"But protecting the health of our Harrisonburg and Rockingham County community—including students, faculty, staff—remains our top priority,” according to a release.
In his first media appearance since undergoing vocal cord surgery, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, warned Tuesday that colleges and universities should not send students home in the event of an outbreak.
"It's the worst thing you could do," Fauci said in an interview with NBC, adding that sending students home could allow the virus to spread in new areas.
Dr. Deborah Birx, who leads President Donald Trump’s coronavirus taskforce, also echoed the warning.
“Please do not go home and spread the virus to your mom, your dad, your aunts and your uncles,” she urged students.
In a statement, a JMU spokesperson clarified that students who tested positive for COVID-19 or already in isolation will remain on campus until it is safe for them to return home.
“The university will not be sending home students who have COVID-19 and are in isolation, or those who have had close contact with a person confirmed to have COVID-19, and are currently quarantining. Those students have been instructed to finish out their prescribed time in either isolation or quarantine here in Harrisonburg before returning home. By sending home our healthy students we are reducing the population present in our campus residence halls, where the virus could otherwise spread rapidly,” the spokesperson said.
The university is also recommending all students quarantine for 14 days when they return home.
Over the next month, university officials will "carefully monitor health trends and other developments," and will be in touch with the campus community by Sept. 25 regarding the possibility of returning to in-person instruction on or after October 5.
Jason Elmore’s daughter is a Sophomore at JMU living off-campus. He applauded the university’s decision to move on-campus students home, but his daughter will stay in Harrisonburg to work.
“I know it’s not an easy decision for them, because it’s a very impactful thing for so many students to send so many of them back home,” the Chesterfield father stated. “We are in the midst of a pandemic and this virus spreads quickly. Hopefully the students will learn and get back on campus.”
Homer Eliades, a JMU Senior, remained doubtful there will be a return to in-person classes.
“People are upset, students are upset. I have a whole lease but there’s very little reason to stay unless I get a job here,” the Hopewell native said. “Now we are transition online for supposedly temporary period, but there’s very little hope in the eyes of my classmates and myself that we will return.”
Brittney Watkins, a Junior at JMU, planned to live with her sorority sisters in a house off-campus.
“Honestly, I wasn’t very surprised we are going fully online,” she explained. “I dont think we’ve should’ve come back this early.”
However, the Chesterfield native remained hopeful cases will drop and she can return to learning on-campus.