COVID-19 Management Yields Positive Results on College Campuses
This article is part of a special series produced by Murray State University students participating in an investigative reporting fellowship partnership with WKMS.
For many college students, the coronavirus pandemic first became real at the tail end of the spring 2020 semester. The once-bustling walkways of college campuses turned desolate seemingly at the flip of a switch. Face masks and social distancing were soon the norm in all aspects of life.
Now, as the spring 2021 semester wraps up, college representatives and students say COVID-19 management has proven largely successful thanks to widespread adherence to practical guidelines.
“We have all remained flexible in very challenging times,” said Shawn Touney, executive director of marketing and communication at Murray State University (MSU). “We have had a very good spring as we conclude the semester here soon, and continue to actively make plans for a more normal summer and fall.”
Western Kentucky schools easing back into normal instruction report relatively few infections and say they’ve largely avoided major outbreaks.
According to data gathered from colleges’ respective COVID-19 dashboards, there have been more than 1,800 documented coronavirus cases across four regional institutions since July 2020. This total includes four-year universities like MSU and community colleges like Elizabethtown Community & Technical College (ECTC). But that data presents an incomplete picture, since some institutions do not record total case numbers. A state health official did not respond to inquiries regarding the archival of this data.
Schools have been anxious to return to in-person instruction and say the past two semesters have been hard on students — especially non-traditional students who may feel the effects of the pandemic in other facets of their lives. As students return to campuses, the four colleges featured in this story do not require proof of immunization for diseases such as hepatitis B outside of specific programs such as nursing or radiology, nor do they require students to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Unprecedented Problems, Unprecedented Solutions
Last spring’s shutdown introduced a host of new challenges for colleges to navigate. MSU initially planned a period of online instruction from March 23-April 5, 2020, only to extend it through the end of the spring semester. With few exceptions, students were required to move out of dormitories. Campus buildings were closed to the general public. Faculty and staff were encouraged to work remotely. MSU was emptier than ever before.
Universities opened back up at least partly in the fall, and they were confident they could do so safely. Currently, about half of the classes at Western Kentucky University (WKU) “have some in-person component.” The other half are fully remote. This means many students still see classmates in Zoom windows nearly as much as they see them in surrounding desks, despite returning to campus.
Aiding the reopening process are plans such MSU’s “Racer Restart.” This initiative requires students, faculty, staff and visitors to wear a face mask and social distance on campus, check their body temperatures daily and perform contact tracing when exposed to an infected person. The university has also placed a greater emphasis on mental health throughout the spring 2021 semester.
Hopkinsville Community College (HCC) began its “hybrid model,” with some classes meeting online and others in-person, in fall 2020. The school requires students to quarantine if they test positive for, are exposed to or have symptoms of COVID-19. Students must also wear a face mask, social distance and use hand sanitizer before and after touching multi-use objects. Common areas and break rooms are closed to gatherings.
Although a year has passed, ensuring the health and safety of everyone on campus is still a top priority to Dale Leatherman, chief business affairs officer at HCC.
“We did feel comfortable with campus safety protocols that were established going into [the spring 2021 semester], and actually, our faculty, staff and students have followed the safety precautions very closely,” Leatherman said. He attributes the low case count at HCC — just two this month, according to the school’s COVID-19 dashboard — to that compliance.
Those precautions seem to have worked. Case loads are relatively low on campuses in Western Kentucky, according to data reported on colleges’ respective COVID-19 dashboards.
These dashboards provide a snapshot of COVID-19 cases at these institutions, but don’t show the whole picture.
Full data on many community and technical colleges isn’t available, for example. The Kentucky Community & Technical College System (KCTCS) — comprising 16 colleges such as ECTC and HCC — started posting COVID-19 case counts twice a week in September 2020 but does not keep cumulative totals. Mary Hemlepp, director of communication strategy at KCTCS, says the organization does not track total case numbers because they “have not had many cases reported.”
Case counts in the counties in which these colleges reside have been higher than those on campus. Warren County has had 15,694 total reported cases as of April 26, according to data from USA Facts, whereas WKU has only had 1,292. Calloway County has had 3,469 cases, according to their health department, to MSU’s 563.
“We’ve never had a large number of cases,” said Bob Skipper, director of media relations at WKU. “I think a lot of that is because we have active case management on campus. We usually contact any of the students who test positive before the health department does, and get them into quarantine quickly.”
The Student Perspective
Students at regional colleges say they feel safe on campus, though coronavirus precautions have been a challenge.
Josiah Youngers, a sophomore civil engineering major at WKU, said he and most of his friends haven’t been very worried about catching COVID-19 because of WKU’s efforts to contain the spread.
“If someone does catch it or whatever, they’re good about quarantining and taking care of it,” Youngers said. “So it doesn’t really hinder the rest of us from being able to be in school.”
While case counts may be low, the spring 2021 semester hasn’t necessarily been easy for students. Dale Buckles, chief student affairs officer at ECTC, said nontraditional students may face unique challenges.
“Our average age is 29-year-old students, so we have a lot of adults,” Buckles said. “We have adults with kids.”
Buckles said juggling kids in the public school system with their own education has been especially challenging for some students.
But even younger students say the less familiar learning conditions can hamper their academic performance. Aliyah Dill, a freshman psychology major at MSU, said online classes “negatively impacted” her learning.
“I really enjoy being in person and being around people, especially when I’m learning,” Dill said. “I know I get way too freaking distracted in my room, especially when I don’t need to have my camera on, and I can just play on my phone the entire time — which, yes, I did, and I feel awful for doing it.”
Skipper of WKU noted a “mix” of attitudes toward the pandemic from students.
“We’ve got students who are very vigilant and very concerned, and then we have those who feel somewhat invincible and that nothing is going to bother them,” Skipper said. “But I think, overall, we’ve had a good acceptance of the guidelines, and we’ve done a good job of keeping this thing from becoming a major outbreak on our campus.”
Preparing for Next Semester
Many students are “just kind of over [the virus] at this point,” said Youngers of WKU.
And life appears to be returning to normal at these places of learning. The four institutions featured in this story all offer at least some face-to-face classes. WKU Greek life recruitment plans to occur in-person in fall 2021. MSU reinstated tailgating, albeit with some restrictions, in early April.
None of the colleges featured in this story currently require a COVID-19 vaccine, but all recommend it. KCTCS institutions, including HCC and ECTCS, will not require the vaccine until advised by higher-ups within the organization.
“Our stance is that this has been approved as an emergency use by the FDA, and since it’s in an emergency-type mode, we’re not going to require it,” Skipper said.
School administrators told WKMS they will continue to follow coronavirus protocols that, judging by reported caseloads, appear to be working.
Leatherman of HCC said enrollment numbers are looking good and student traffic on campus has increased, all without an uptick in cases.
“I don’t know if anybody knows what to expect in a situation like this, but we continue to be pleased with how things are going,” Leatherman said. “Our protocols are ongoing, as I mentioned, and they appear to be working.”
Murray State University's Journalism and Mass Communications department and WKMS News collaborated to create an investigative reporting fellowship program in partnership with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. Four Murray State students dedicated a semester of learning to the program. This article is a product of that learning experience.