Gov. Ralph Northam held a press conference at George Mason University's campus on Tuesday, where he praised the Fairfax County school for its low COVID-19 transmission and unveiled a higher education refinancing plan to cushion the economic fallout caused by the pandemic.
Northam delivered remarks to a sparsely filled room of Virginia legislators and university administrative staff at Merten Hall, praising university President Gregory Washington, and students, for how they have handled the transition back to in-person learning.
The university, which has had fewer than 30 cases of COVID-19, has the lowest number of positive COVID-19 cases of all large public universities in the state.
"I know George Mason is taking safety precautions very seriously – all of us here today did a health assessment, and I know students and faculty do the same," Northam said. "Your positivity rate of residential students last week, 0.45 percent, is enviable."
Since the Labor Day holiday, 11 students have tested positive out of more than 2,400 test results, according to a press release signed by the university president.
Washington said that the university's success at maintaining a low rate of transmission has a lot to do with the students buying into the university's safety plan.
"And that has probably helped more than anything," said Washington. "Because no matter what we do, if the students decide to congregate, they can thwart our best efforts."
Mason started the fall semester on Aug. 24, with a mix of in-person instruction and expanded online classes. A little over 3,000 students are currently living and studying on campus, Washington said, and another 7,000 to 10,000 students are taking courses on campus.
Classes too large for students to practice social distancing are held remotely.
During the press conference, Northam also announced he would take advantage of low-interest rates by refinancing bonds issued by the Treasury Board and College Building Authority, which could help public institutions like George Mason save around $58 million.
"Today, I'm announcing that we will move forward with a debt restructuring project that will save the institutions more than $300 million over the next two years for two pools of higher education bonds," said Northam. "The colleges and universities can use the savings for other operating expenses or offset losses—at a time when they need it."
Northam said he authorized the treasury to move forward with refinancing one pool of debt, but to refinance the other pool of debt will require the General Assembly to pursue legislation in the next regular session in January.
Following the press conference, an entourage of legislators and administrative staff followed Northam around campus as he toured the university's School of Nursing Simulation Lab and COVID-19 testing facility – located in a parking garage underneath the Cabrera Global Center.
Northam said the university's efforts to keep the COVID-19 virus at bay were commendable. Still, he added that it is important to keep wearing masks and social distance in conjunction with testing.
"We need to make sure all Virginians realize that this virus is still with us even though our numbers are coming down," said Northam. "In Virginia, we've made good progress. But we've got to continue to follow the guidelines in order to get our children back in school."