FAQs for graduate students regarding the university's COVID-19 directives

In these troubling times, we in the Graduate School acknowledge the anxiety that you and your families are probably feeling, especially those of you from heavily impacted countries and locations within the United States. Your health and well-being are very important, along with your education and contributions to the missions (teaching, research, service/engagement) of our global land grant university.

Below is a list of frequently asked questions relevant to the impact of the Coronavirus and COVID-19 on graduate education at Virginia Tech. The university also has been posting messages from the President, Provost, and other administrative units about the situation, and we encourage you to consult them as well on the COVID-19 information webpage.

(Updated and expanded posting: April 1, 2020)

Will the Graduate School offices remain open during the spring 2020 semester?

The Graduate School is committed to helping students continue to make progress toward their degrees while safeguarding their health, but our building hours have been modified.  Until further notice, the Graduate Life Center is closed to public access. As always, graduate students have 24/7 access with their Hokie Passport. The Graduate School offices will continue with Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours for critical services. Please help us observe social distancing and fight the epidemic by doing your business with the Graduate School by phone, e-mail, or Zoom where possible. If you have an in-person scheduled appointment or need to pick up an immigration document (between 1-4pm), please enter the building using your Hokie Passport to swipe in at the Otey Street or Bookstore side entrance and follow the directions on our signage at Room 120 GLC.

You are welcome here, and you can expect that staff members who greet you will have been abiding by CDC guidelines in limiting travel, maintaining ‘social distance,’ and observing recommended hygiene habits, such as washing hands and wiping down surfaces with disinfectant, for your safety and health. Any student who feels ill or exhibits symptoms of illness should not come to the Graduate School. Please consider scheduling a ‘meeting’ with Grad School staff over the phone or by Skype or Zoom.  Phone: (540) 231-6691   Email: grads@vt.edu

Do graduate students have to come to campus while classes are being conducted online? 

The university is concerned foremost with students’ health and safety. If a student does not need to come on campus to complete coursework, they are urged not to do so. President Sands has announced that by Friday, April 3, university operations will transition from the “reduced operations” level to the “essential operations” designation, as described in Presidential Policy Memorandum No. 309., Under this directive, the university will prioritize functions and services that are essential to life safety (public safety, health services), online instruction and academic support services, animal care, essential research, and maintenance of buildings and critical infrastructure. Please consult your advisor and other instructors to discuss options for working remotely or identifying other strategies designed to minimize the health risk to you and your colleagues, while still keeping you in good academic standing and advancing towards your degree.

What will happen to the Graduate School events scheduled through the end of the year?

Most graduate school events, including Graduate Education Week, have been canceled through the end of the academic year. Some events may be rescheduled, but they will be limited in numbers of people in attendance or will be provided virtually. Please stay tuned for future announcements. 

I was accepted for admission to a graduate program at VT and have been offered a teaching assistantship to start in the fall of 2020.  I am concerned that the university may not be fully operational in the fall – can I defer enrolling in my program and acceptance of my assistantship to a future semester?

Yes, you can defer your admission to another semester or year without cost. Please notify graduate admissions (grads@vt.edu), and they will process your admission preferences for you.  The admission deferral does not automatically include your assistantship offer; the latter will be at the discretion of the department or program.

I am interested in the new Computer Science Master of Engineering degree being offered in Northern Virginia, in anticipation of the opening of the Innovation Campus.  Will that program be available in the fall?

Yes, plans remain in place to offer this program in the fall.  Please consult the Department of Computer Science for additional information on the MEng and their other graduate programs.

I need to submit my Plan of Study and a Course Justification form so I can schedule my preliminary exam.  Instead of tracking down my five committee members and program director for their physical signatures in person, can I ask them to sign the forms electronically?

Yes, under these circumstances we can accept forms approved by a method other than affixation of a ‘wet’ signature.  Several options exist. Perhaps the easiest is to circulate a pdf version of the form in question, to which each approver can add their signature securely in Acrobat.  Tutorials on obtaining and signing with a VT Personal Digital Certificate are available on 4help. Alternatively, approvers can grant via email their permission for your program coordinator to sign on their behalf.  If this option is used, be sure to append the email chain(s) that document the grants of proxy.  

As always, forms can be submitted as pdf attachments to grads@vt.edu or via campus mail to MC 0325.  This approach can be used for any interaction with the Graduate School that does not yet involve a wholly online interface (such as the exam scheduling system). (updated March 25, 2020)

What should we do about scheduling and holding the required milestone examinations (Preliminary Exam and Thesis/Dissertation Defense)?

Consistent with the university’s guidance regarding classes, your advisory committee and program must take steps to make preliminary or final defense exams available to you online. Instructors cannot require students to be on campus to take these or any other exams. Contact the Graduate School Admissions & Academic Progress staff for guidance (grads@vt.edu).

Experience to date with conducting preliminary or final defense exams on Zoom has been generally positive. The Graduate School has been working with TLOS to develop a set of recommendations for how remote exams can be held to best effect. Please stay tuned.

I am trying to finish my dissertation in order to defend by the end of the spring 2020 semester.  Are there any provisions for extending the last date to defend (May 13, 2020) and still be considered a spring 2020 graduate?  Is the two-week lead-time for scheduling defenses still in place?

Yes, we are able to exercise flexibility with exam scheduling deadlines on a case-by-case basis. If such an exception is desired, have your advisor email their request and justification for extension to grads@vt.edu. You will be able to defend up to May 15, 2020, with the possibility of a one-week extension to May 22 as needed. We still need the two-week advance scheduling request in order to complete the review of your Plan of Study, committee membership, and other elements needed for exam scheduling.

What arrangements are being made for GTAs, GRAs, and GAs?

Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs), Graduate Research Assistants (GRAs), and Graduate Assistants (GAs) should remain attentive to their assistantship responsibilities while protecting their health and that of those around them. Dean DePauw’s message on graduate student employment (March 31, 2020) acknowledges the importance of roles performed by graduate assistants, as well as students’ potential vulnerability to financial hardship caused by COVID-19. Accordingly, departments and colleges must make every effort to continue stipend support for graduate assistants at current levels of compensation, at least until the end of the academic year. For graduate assistants with stipend support from extramural grants and sponsors, departments will work with the sponsoring agencies to confirm their ongoing support. 

Any questions about how to fulfill your particular assistantship responsibilities should be directed to your supervising faculty members in consultation with your Graduate Program Director. There will likely be a variety of options and alternatives, and you will have an opportunity for input in the process. 

Will the graduate school allow flexibility on number of hours enrolled (e.g., if students need to withdraw), grades, progress toward degree, incompletes, etc.?

Provost Clarke announced on March 23 that the deadline for undergraduate and graduate students to withdraw from a class without penalty has been extended to April 15, 2020.  There are numerous factors students need to consider, however. For example, immigration policy mandates a fixed minimum number of credits for international students. In addition, hours of enrollment can impact access to financial aid. Thus we need to evaluate each case to find the best option for each student. 

Grading options available to graduate students already offer considerable flexibility. These options include the ability to drop the course completely (by the extended deadline noted above) or withdraw from a class up until the last day of classes (denoted as “WG”) without penalty. Also available are switching to Incomplete or Audit options without impacting one’s GPA. Graduate students can also utilize Repeat Grade (“RG”). Please refer to the Graduate Catalog for particulars. We will be happy to work with each case individually.

Graduate students will be allowed to change the grading option from A/F to P/F for graduate courses taken in Spring 2020. A maximum of 6 graduate credits converted A/F to P/F in this manner will be allowed to count toward their program’s graded course credit total on the Plan of Study (research credits are graded as Equivalent Credit [EQ] and do not count as P/F). The decision to change the grading option should be considered in consultation with the faculty advisor and the Graduate Program Director. These decisions should be made not later than May 1, 2020. (Updated March 28, 2020)

I am anticipating defending my dissertation this semester.  Will commencement be held in May?

The university announced on March 19, 2020, that a university-wide commencement ceremony will be held online at 8:30 a.m. on Friday, May 15, 2020, to include welcoming comments, speeches, announcements of awards and honors, and the conferral of degrees. Graduate students who complete their degrees in spring 2020 are welcome to return to commencement ceremonies in December 2020 or May 2021, if conditions permit at those times.

I'm graduating this spring. How will I get my diploma?

All diplomas will be mailed to graduating students as soon as possible. Please update your diploma mailing address by following these instructions:

  • Log into HokieSpa
  • Go to the HokieSpa Tab
  • Click the Degree Menu
  • Select Graduate Student Degree Menu
  • Click Add/Update Diploma Address
  • Click Add/Update

Please allow 10-12 weeks after May 16 to receive your printed diploma.your printed diploma.

screen grab of the graduate student degree menu in HokieSpa

On Friday, March 20, 2020, the university announced that access to all but a few buildings on the Blacksburg campus would be restricted. Subsequently, the university announced that campus operations will transition from the “reduced operations” level to the “essential operations” designation on April 3, 2020. Will I be able to get into my lab and classrooms to continue my research or conduct my work as a GTA?

The university understands that graduate students play a critical role in advancing Virginia Tech’s research mission, and the academic expectations of research-based PhD and MS programs involve successful completion of dissertation or thesis research projects.  Acknowledging that restrictions on research activity may make it difficult for graduate students to maintain their academic progress, Virginia Tech nevertheless is committed to the higher priority of health safety.  Therefore, consistent with Governor Northam’s stay at home order (Executive Order No. 55 – 2020), all research activities involving graduate students will be conducted in accordance with the Essential Operations level stipulated in Presidential Policy Memorandum No. 309.

Specific circumstances vary among graduate students, so a plan for assigned research duties should be developed through an interactive conversation between the student and faculty advisor.  In all cases, plans must be approved by the Graduate Program Director, who shall serve as an advocate for the student when necessary. Please follow the detailed guidelines issued by Dean DePauw (listed in the following question) in drafting a modified research plan.

As of March 20, 2020, the university indicated that continued access to office suites, labs, and other areas will be at departmental discretion. Check with your research advisor and TA supervisor about gaining access to needed rooms that are managed by your department. As always the case in the current circumstances, all in the university community are expected to abide by the CDC-recommended hygiene practices (avoidance of close contact with other people, frequent hand washing, self-quarantining if one has traveled or is feeling unwell) to minimize risk of illness transmission.  Further, guidance from the OVPRI provides a strategy to identifying and fulfilling essential research functions.

Essential functions and services are those deemed indispensable for life safety (public safety, health services, and housing and dining for students remaining in university housing), online instruction and academic support services, animal care, essential research, and maintenance of buildings and critical infrastructure. Under the essential operations mandate, face-to-face interactions for continuing essential services and functions must be minimized. Where possible, those services will be continued through online, phone, email, and other methods that comply with social distancing expectations.

Be sure to visit the main university coronavirus website and the research-focused FAQs regularly for the latest information and directives regarding identification and performance of essential research. 

Can graduate students still conduct their research?

Graduate students play a critical role in advancing Virginia Tech’s research mission and the academic expectations of research-based PhD and MS programs involve successful completion of dissertation or thesis research projects. Acknowledging that restrictions on research activity may make it difficult for graduate students to maintain their academic progress, Virginia Tech nevertheless is committed to the higher priority of health safety. Therefore, consistent with Governor Northam’s stay at home order (Executive Order No. 55 – 2020), all research activities involving graduate students will be conducted in accordance with the Essential Operations level stipulated in Presidential Policy Memorandum No. 309.

Specific circumstances vary among graduate students, so a plan for assigned research duties should be developed through an interactive conversation between the student and faculty advisor.

In all cases, plans must be approved by the graduate program director who shall serve as an advocate for the student when necessary. The following guidelines should be followed in drafting the plan:

1. Graduate students whose research projects are conducted at home and that do not involve close contact with others and that pose no risk to their health safety or that of others are not subject to these guidelines.

2. For research projects that involve working in environments occupied by others such as multi-user laboratories, graduate students should be assigned tasks that can be accomplished remotely if feasible. Examples of tasks that are well suited to remote work include literature reviews, project design, data collation and analysis, and manuscript preparation.

3. For research projects that involve working in environments occupied by others and if remote work is not feasible, a graduate student may conduct research in these environments (on site) only if the research project is determined to be essential and if the graduate student is also identified to be essential to make progress on the project. Under these limited circumstances, the following conditions must be met:

a. On-site work must be voluntary and authorized by the student’s advisor, and mutual agreement must be documented and confirmed by the graduate program director, who will serve as the graduate student’s advocate when necessary.

b. The student’s advisor, project principal investigator, lab manager, or other appropriately trained employee must be present or sufficiently proximate to oversee health safety training and be readily available to answer questions and address any concerns.

c. Each on-site research location will have an updated COVID-19 standard operating procedure (SOP) prominently displayed that instructs all personnel regarding health safety practices appropriate for the space and type of research conducted, and a training log will be maintained in which each student confirms successful completion of training in these health safety practices.

d. Required health safety practices described in the COVID-19 SOP will include the following:

i. Prohibition against occupancy if the individual:

1) has fever or respiratory symptoms or has been in contact with anyone with these symptoms for the past 14 days;

2) has tested positive for COVID-19 and has not yet been cleared to return to work by an authorized public health official; or

3) has within the last 14 days returned from an area with reported community spread of COVID-19.

ii. Individuals with an underlying health condition that may predispose the individual to COVID-19 are discouraged from working on site.

iii. Minimum standards for social distancing, described in terms of distance (at least 6 feet) as well as duration of proximity (no more than 15 minutes).

iv. Minimum standards for hygienic practices such as hand washing.

v. Identification of surfaces to be disinfected and frequency of disinfection.

vi. Any requirements for personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks and gloves, and the types of PPE required.

Dissertation and thesis research as well as research assigned to meet assistantship work requirements are subject to these guidelines. All research done for academic credit, except for dissertation or thesis credit, must be conducted remotely. Graduate students who are employed to conduct research that does not involve assistantship duties are subject to policies pertaining to student wage employees.

My research involves interaction with human subjects, including conducting interviews and physical examinations. Will I be able to continue my research?

Owing to the current need to minimize contact with other people, restrictions have been placed on certain forms of human subjects research.  Please see the guidance posted by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation for current information on the types of human subjects research that may be permitted to continue. 

I am an international student.  I am close to finishing my graduate degree but concerned that the disruption in academic operations will delay me past the end date on my I-20.  Is the coronavirus considered acceptable grounds for requesting an I-20 extension? 

The coronavirus crisis alone is not an acceptable reason for requesting an I-20 extension. The rationale for I-20 extension must be related to academic progress, and you would need to demonstrate how your academic progress was delayed by the current situation.  See more at this webpage, and consult with one of our immigration advisors (540-231-8486; igss@vt.edu) if you have any questions.

I am an international student who needs to relocate because of the university decision to hold classes online. What do I need to do about travel and other aspects of my immigration status?

We understand that you will be facing many challenges as you manage aspects of your daily lives. We will continue to provide services to support you and help you meet immigration obligations.

We would like to know more about your decision to relocate. Complete the COVID-19 Reporting e-form to provide us with updated information. Login to IntlHokies > Biographical Information > COVID-19 Reporting Form (If you have not made changes to your location, you do not need to complete the COVID-19 Reporting e-form.). Multiple submissions of the COVID-19 Reporting e-form are allowed. If you need to submit new information, you can click on the link for the COVID-19 form and scroll to the bottom right hand corner and click the NEW Button; edit the information; then click the SUBMIT button. If you choose to leave the Blacksburg area, be aware that travel restrictions may be imposed while you are away, which could limit your ability to return. Please continue to monitor the Virginia Tech website for important updates to the university’s response to the COVID- 19 Virus.

Progress in my research relies on being able to travel to other locations to collect samples for analysis.  Will I be able to continue this type of work?

Some "essential" travel can be allowed, but your faculty advisor, in conjunction with the Graduate Program Director or Department Head, must confirm in writing that the travel is critical to the research. Consideration first should be given to modifying research plans such that travel and outside contact are minimized but progress still made toward program objectives. Please check the updates from the OVPRI for the latest information on research-related travel.

I have paid fees to cover access to facilities and services that are no longer available on campus.  Will I be getting a refund for the unused portion of my fees this semester?

This question, along with other financial matters that impact graduate students, will be considered by the university toward the end of the semester.

I usually commute to campus via Blacksburg Transit. I will need to come to campus to access and deliver online instruction, but would like to avoid the bus. Will on-campus parking be available to students without purchasing a permit?

Starting Monday, March 23, Parking Services will allow graduate students to park in the Perry Street area without a permit.  See the map attached.

Map showing that graduate students can park without a permit (for free) in the Perry Street parking lots and garage through the end of the semester (May 2020)
Permit free parking for graduate students as of March 23 2020

What are the guidelines related to graduate assistants working for the university?

Delivery of Virginia Tech’s instructional mission depends on the active participation of graduate assistants, as does the achievement of its research and outreach missions. Considering these important roles performed by graduate students and their potential vulnerability to financial hardship caused by COVID-19, departments and colleges must make every effort to continue stipend support for graduate assistants at current levels of compensation, at least until the end of the academic year. The following guidelines are designed to achieve this goal:

1. Employment of graduate assistants (GA, GTA, GRA) will continue to be subject to policies stipulated in Virginia Tech’s Faculty Handbook.

2. Graduate assistants are expected to continue carrying out the teaching, research and other duties assigned by their advisors, departments, programs or administrative units. In keeping with the need to reduce health risks to themselves and their coworkers, graduate assistants should discuss with their assistantship supervisors how to work remotely or use other strategies to reduce the need to be on site.

3. For graduate assistants with stipend support from extramural grants and sponsors, departments will work with the sponsoring agencies to confirm their ongoing support. In those instances where such support is not possible, the feasibility of bridge support using other departmental or college funding should be explored. In the unlikely event that such bridge support is not possible, the Dean of the Graduate School will be notified. The Dean will then work with the Vice Provost for Academic Resource Management to explore funding solutions.