HARRISONBURG, Va. (WAVY) — James Madison University (JMU) announced that it was switching to primarily online learning after reporting more than 500 total COVID-19 cases on Tuesday.

JMU’s COVID-19 dashboard is updated every weekday. On Wednesday, Sept. 2, it shows 601 active cases. That equates to 2.3% of the 22,000 students and 3,840 employees at JMU. That’s the highest cumulative case count of any college in Virginia.

Nearly all of those cases have been reported in the last week, after JMU officially started in-person classes on Wednesday, August 26.

Wednesday’s figures show a total of 419 self-reported cases, with the highest single day positive cases to date reported on Monday (120). JMU says self-reported cases represent students and employees that got tested at an off-campus health care provider.

JMU President Jonathan R. Alger made the announcement about the transition to online learning Tuesday afternoon, stating that the decision, while a difficult message to deliver, was made “in the best interest of public health and safety.”

Classes will be primarily online learning with some hybrid instruction.

Courses currently offered online will continue to be online without any break in instruction. Classes will take place as scheduled for the remainder of this week unless students are otherwise notified by their faculty.

In-person classes will transition online no later than this coming Monday, Sept. 7. Additionally, in an effort to reduce the number of people on campus, residents will be asked to return home by Sept. 7 unless they seek an exemption to stay.

Officials said the Office of Residence Life would be in touch with on-campus residents within 24 hours with further details to ensure a smooth departure.

The school’s university health center has also been conducting testing. 38.6% of tests conducted there in the past week have come back positive, including 100% positive tests on August 29 and 30. Combining self-reported and university health center cases together, there’s a 21% positivity rate among students and staff. That’s about three times higher than the state’s average.

JMU says at this time it’s only focusing on testing symptomatic people, meaning others who are not displaying symptoms could be on campus and spreading the virus. The university has 143 quarantine/isolation beds on campus, with 54 available as of Wednesday.

After the announcement about the switch to online learning, the health center said it would also offer additional testing at Godwin Hall on campus.

The surge in university cases comes alongside a spike in cases in the surrounding Harrisonburg community. 77 new cases were reported Tuesday by the Virginia Department of Health, and more than 200 have been reported in the city in the last week.

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. 

While courses will move primarily online during this four-week period, the university will remain open, and continue to offer on-campus amenities, such as dining, health and wellness services.

Decisions about refunds have not yet been made, but university officials say they will communicate with students and families as soon as possible on that topic.  

JMU officials aren’t saying where exactly those who’ve test positive are living, but say some positive cases do not involve people who are physically present on campus. “There are many students and staff who are working, learning or teaching remotely and have been for some time,” a statement on the university’s COVID-19 dashboard reads.

VDH data shows at least 17 positive cases in the 22807 zip code for JMU.

Students have posted to social media to highlight their grievances with the university, including lack of space in classrooms and in dining halls.

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