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: May 22, 2020)

Will the Graduate School offices remain open during the summer 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 switch to summer hours on May 18: Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. hours for critical services. Please help us observe social distancing and fight the epidemic by conducting 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 1-4 p.m.), 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. (Updated May 12, 2020)

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 conversation 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. University operations transition from the “reduced operations” level to the “essential operations” designation on April 3, as described in Presidential Policy Memorandum No. 309. Under the directive, the university prioritized 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. If you have questions, 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 academic year?

Most graduate school events were canceled through the end of spring semester in compliance with the university's COVID-19 response. Some events were rescheduled and were provided virtually. Please stay tuned for future announcements. (Updated May 12, 2020)

I have been admitted to Virginia Tech and need to provide my final official transcript to the Graduate School. How can I provide this transcript?

Please contact the Registrar at your previous institution and have your official transcript(s) sent to the Graduate School. If your prior institution provides transcripts electronically, have your institution’s Registrar’s Office email the transcript(s) to grads@vt.edu. If your institution only mails official transcripts, our address to have your transcript(s) sent to is:

Graduate Admissions

Graduate Life Center (0325)

155 Otey Street

Blacksburg, VA  24061

I was accepted for admission to a graduate program at Virginia Tech 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?

You can defer your application to another semester or year without incurring an additional application fee. Please contact Graduate Admissions (grads@vt.edu) to discuss the process.  If you elect to defer your application, Graduate Admissions will record your preferences and inform the program to which you were admitted for fall 2020. 

The admission deferral does not automatically include your assistantship offer.  Please contact the program to which you have been admitted to discuss any matters related to deferred program enrollment or your assistantship opportunities. 

When considering a deferral of enrollment, check to see whether courses in your program are available online.  It may be possible to begin study from a distance, in the event that campus remains in a status of reduced operations in fall 2020. (updated April 28, 2020)

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 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 copies of the email exchanges 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 May 12, 2020)

To keep my graduate program on schedule, I need to have my Preliminary Examination during the summer. What should my advisor and committee do about scheduling and holding the exam?

Consistent with the university’s guidance regarding classes, your advisory committee and program must take steps to make your Preliminary Exam available to you online. Instructors cannot require students to be on campus to take these or any other exams. 

You may use the Start of Semester Defense Exception (SSDE) throughout the entire summer to schedule and take your Preliminary Examination. The SSDE application form should be submitted to the Graduate School no later than 3 weeks before the desired examination date to allow time to complete the review of your Plan of Study, committee membership, and other elements needed to formally schedule the exam. Once approved, the Graduate School will register you for the requisite one credit hour.

Experience to date with conducting Preliminary Exams on Zoom has been generally positive.  The Graduate School and TLOS have assembled a set of recommendations that you and your committee are advised to follow in arranging and conducting your exam.  These tips include reminders on exam scheduling and pointers on efficient, professional, and resilient remote communications.  Contact the Graduate School Admissions & Academic Progress staff for guidance (grads@vt.edu). (Updated May 22, 2020)

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 through 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.

Questions about assistantship contracts for the 2020-21 academic year also should be directed to your supervising faculty members and Graduate Program Directors.  (Updated April 27, 2020)

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

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. The deadline for these decisions was May 1, 2020. (Updated May 7, 2020)

I am trying to finish my dissertation in order to defend this summer. What do I need to do?  

Students may use the Start of Semester Defense Exception (SSDE) throughout the entire summer to register and take their final examination. The SSDE form should be submitted to the Graduate School no later than 3 weeks before the final examination date. Once approved, the Graduate School will register you for the requisite one credit hour. (Updated May 22, 2020)

What should my advisor and committee do about scheduling and holding my Final Examination / Defense?

Consistent with the university’s guidance regarding classes, your advisory committee and program must take steps to make your Final Exam available to you online. Instructors cannot require students to be on campus to take this or any other exams. 

Experience to date with conducting Final Exams on Zoom has been generally positive.  The Graduate School and TLOS have assembled a set of recommendationsthat you and your committee are advised to follow in arranging and conducting your Defense.  These tips include reminders on exam scheduling and pointers on efficient, professional, and resilient remote communications.  Contact the Graduate School Admissions & Academic Progress staff for guidance (grads@vt.edu).

While I enjoyed the May 15 virtual commencement ceremony, I still would like to participate in a ceremony in Cassell Coliseum. Are Spring 2020 graduates able to come back for the Fall commencement, if one is held?  

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. (updated May 22, 2020)

I graduated 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.

Research and Access to Campus Spaces

With the university in “essential operations” mode since April 3, 2020, access to all but a few buildings on the Blacksburg campus has been restricted. Will I be able to get into my lab and classrooms to continue my research or conduct my work as a GTA?

While acknowledging that restrictions on campus activities 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 are being 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 jointly by the student and their 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.

Since March 20, 2020, continued access to office suites, labs, and other areas has been 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, the research-focused FAQs, and the OVPRI’s Research Continuity Guidance regularly for the latest information and directives regarding identification and performance of essential research. 

Can graduate students still conduct their research?

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, has been suspended. When will I be able to resume my research?

Owing to the urgent need to minimize contact with other people, restrictions were placed on certain forms of human subjects research. In anticipation of the Commonwealth of Virginia entering into Phase I of its multi-phased approach to lifting COVID-19 restrictions, Virginia Tech is carefully planning how to reinstitute our research activities. When non-essential research activities are allowed, the Virginia Tech Human Research Protection Program (HRPP) and Institutional Review Board (IRB) will reinstate human subjects research in accordance with any state or local conditions. HRPP and the IRB are preparing specific guidance on resuming in-person human subjects research and will share this guidance as soon as it is approved. Meanwhile, please see the May 11, 2020, letter for steps that research teams can take to prepare to begin or resume in-person research activities.

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.

How do I stay informed about any changes in immigration requirements, benefits and travel restrictions as a result of COVID-19?

Please read emails that are sent to you from International Graduate Student Services from the igss@vt.edu email address, or through the intl-grad-g@vt.edu listserv. We also recommend that you monitor updates at https://studyinthestates.dhs.gov/covid-19-resources, the official government website for F-1 and J-1 students. You can also contact our immigration advisors at 540-231-8486, igss@vt.edu with case-specific questions you may have. 

I’m a new international student accepted for the fall semester. Due to closures in my home country I am unable to submit financial documents by the June 1 deadline. Can the deadline be extended?

Although our deadline for document submission is June 1, we will accept documents even after that date as long as students have a reasonable chance to apply for a visa and arrive in the U.S. by the time the semester begins. 

Please note that our flexibility with the submission deadline does not mean that we will be able to process documents faster to make up for the time lost with a delayed submission. 

I’m a current student and am planning to travel outside the U.S. during the summer. What happens if I am unable to return by the time the fall semester begins?

We recommend that students monitor the following US government website for information for F-1 and J-1 students:

https://www.ice.gov/coronavirus, with specific attention to  https://www.ice.gov/doclib/coronavirus/covid19faq.pdf.

If students cannot or choose not to return to the United States to study, their SEVIS record will have to be terminated.  Students outside the U.S. should refer to the website of the nearest U.S. embassy through the U.S. Department of State for any updates about visa issuance and travel restrictions. 

When ready to return to the U.S., contact our immigration advisors at least 4-6 weeks in advance at igss@vt.edu or 540-231-8486 for information and assistance. 

I have been accepted to a graduate program at Virginia Tech but may not be able to obtain my student visa in time to begin study in the US in fall 2020.  Can I begin my program from my home country?

Please contact the program to which you have been admitted to discuss possible ways that you can begin your studies.  Specifically, you can inquire whether courses in your program are available online.  It may be possible to begin study from a distance, in the event that campus remains in a status of reduced operations in fall 2020, if there are delays in processing your visa application, or if international travel remains restricted. (Updated and expanded, May 15, 2020)

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?

University administration, in a campus notice published on May 7, 2020, shared this statement: "In its review of spring semester tuition and the mandatory fees, the university has determined that tuition and mandatory fees will not be refunded."

Questions about other financial matters related to graduate students are still under consideration. (updated May 8, 2020)

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?

Parking Services is allowing graduate students to park in the Perry Street area without a permit.  See the map below.

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.

Are graduate students eligible for the federal economic impact payments, also known as “stimulus checks,” under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act?

According to information from the IRS, an individual who had income in 2018 or 2019 that requires a tax return to be filed or tax payment to be made by July 15, 2020 will be considered eligible for a stimulus payment, with certain restrictions.  

Eligible taxpayers who filed tax returns for either 2019 or 2018 will automatically receive payment of up to $1,200 for individuals or $2,400 for married couples, and up to $500 for each qualifying child. Tax filers with adjusted gross income up to $75,000 for individuals and up to $150,000 for married couples filing joint returns will receive the full payment. 

For filers with income above those amounts, the payment amount is reduced by $5 for each $100 above the $75,000/$150,000 thresholds. Single filers with income exceeding $99,000 and joint filers with no children and income exceeding $198,000 are not eligible.  International students who arrived in the US in 2020 or did not have income in 2019 would not be eligible for a stimulus payment.

The vast majority of people do not need to take any action to receive their stimulus check. The IRS will calculate and automatically send the economic impact payment to those eligible. For people who have already filed their 2019 tax returns, the IRS will use this information to calculate the payment amount. For those who have not yet filed their return for 2019, the IRS will use information from their 2018 tax filing to calculate the payment. 

Domestic students who are claimed as dependents on their parents’ tax returns may not be eligible for the stimulus payment.  If they are not filing their own tax return as described above, they will not themselves be eligible for the $1,200 but may, as dependents, qualify their parents to receive an additional $500.

See the IRS information page for updates.

Are international graduate students eligible to receive federal stimulus checks under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act? 

International students who had income in 2018 or 2019 that requires a tax return to be filed or tax payment to be made by July 15, 2020 will be considered eligible for a stimulus payment, with certain restrictions. However, international students who arrived in the US in 2020 or did not have income in 2019 would not be eligible for a stimulus payment. 

Tax filers with adjusted gross income up to $75,000 for individuals and up to $150,000 for married couples filing joint returns will receive the full payment. For filers with income above those amounts, the payment amount is reduced by $5 for each $100 above the $75,000/$150,000 thresholds. Single filers with income exceeding $99,000 and joint filers with no children and income exceeding $198,000 are not eligible.  

See the IRS information page for updates.

The university has announced that some of the funding provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act will be allocated to emergency financial aid for eligible students who are experiencing financial hardships as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  How can I apply for financial assistance?

Requests for financial assistance through the CARES Act funding, as well as assistance via the university’s long-standing Student Emergency Fund, can be made through the contact form on the Dean of Students website.  Information that you provide on the contact form will allow staff to direct your request to the program for which you are eligible.