Arkansas State University students returning to the Jonesboro campus for the fall semester are finding a campus different from the one they left in March when the spread of COVID-19 forced a halt to face-to-face instruction. While students and faculty transitioned to all online classes, university leaders were also going to school.
The work of seven COVID-19 continuity task forces not only produced a detailed set of guidelines called the “Return to Learn” plan, but also suggested a host of physical changes in the campus to implement the plan, said ASU Chancellor Dr. Kelly Damphousse.
“When we transitioned to all-online instruction in March, we knew very little about the spread of coronavirus, and our campus, like most across America, was ill-prepared to respond to the threat of a contagious novel virus,” Damphousse said. “Most of that has changed.”
Now, he said, “We know how it spreads. We feel like the ‘Return to Learn’ plan will maximize our ability to perform our mission.”
Acknowledging that there is no way to completely eliminate the virus, Damphousse said the university is committed to doing everything possible to reduce the exposure of students, faculty and staff to the illness.
“The key to us has been mandating mask wearing everywhere [and] encouraging people to use good hygiene by frequent handwashing. We have sanitation stations all over campus and we are performing enhanced cleaning of high-contact surfaces,” he said.
Though there are still unknowns in battling the virus, Damphousse said there is an understanding that social distancing minimizes the spread of the virus from person to person through droplets produced by sneezing or coughing. To help remind the campus population of the all-important social distancing requirements, there are “Red Wolf footprints” delineating the recommended 6-foot distance in key areas.
“Every classroom on campus has a new COVID capacity,” Damphousse said.
Campus leaders have gone into every classroom with an architect and an engineer to determine how the classroom can be utilized and still maintain the physical distancing required. For example, if there are 40 seats and only 30 can be seated safely, ASU will reduce the size of the class, move it to another classroom, or transition to a hybrid model of instruction that combines face-to-face and online instruction.
“If we do all of those things and take the personal responsibility to practice them ourselves then we can limit the spread on campus,” he said.
Knowing some people will nevertheless contract the virus, Damphousse said the university will conduct testing and contact tracing to get the people who need to be quarantined. The medical school on campus, the New York Institute of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University, will perform the testing and contact tracing for all of ASU’s campuses across the state through its community outreach entity the Delta Population Health Initiative.
Identifying members of the campus community who are infected or have been in direct contact with someone who has the virus is a key component to limiting the spread, Damphousse said. Direct contact, he noted, means being less than 6 feet away from an infected person for longer than 15 minutes.
Each day, students and employees who log onto my.AState are prompted to answer COVID-19 symptom questions to identify those who might be symptomatic. The system is a screening process and a reminder of the COVID-19 symptoms — fever, cough, shortness of breath, weakness, fatigue, nausea, a new change in the senses of taste or smell.
In order to quickly identify cases of the virus, students or employees are required to complete a self-identification form if they have been tested for COVID, have been instructed to self-quarantine, have received a positive COVID test result, have been in direct contact with a virus-positive individual, or are experiencing symptoms of the illness, Damphousse said.
Students or employees who self-report symptoms are to go home immediately and will be contacted by a member of the university’s emergency response team. Depending on the result of that interaction, they may be directed to one of two on-campus locations for testing. ASU has acquired Abbott rapid testing machines that produce test results in as little as 13 minutes.
Those who test positive for the virus must remain in isolation for 10 days and those who test negative but have symptoms are to remain in isolation until they have experienced a day without fever or symptoms have improved and 10 days have passed since the symptoms first appeared.
Contact tracers will contact those who have tested positive or who reported experiencing symptoms of the virus — people known as “index cases” — in an effort to identify those with whom the index case has had direct contact in the two days before a positive test or the onset of symptoms. Tracers will reach out to direct contacts to inform them they have had contact with an index case but the identity of that person will not be revealed. The direct contacts are then placed in quarantine for 14 days.
“We have set up isolation units,” Damphousse said. “But some students will go home. For those who can (remain), we have a safe place to put them during the isolation period.”
Despite the measures that the university has put in place in an effort to ensure safety of the campus population, Damphousse said there may be a dip in enrollment when the official attendance count is taken on the 11th day of classes.
“We don’t know how the pandemic may affect this semester’s enrollment,” he said. “We have heard from the very beginning it may affect enrollment at colleges from 20% to 25%. Harvard expects a 20% decrease in the freshman class,” Damphousse said.
ASU expects a less than 10% drop, he said, adding, “but you never know who will show up.”
Anecdotally, one student called him recently and informed him she will sit out this semester because of the existence of the virus but plans to enroll for the spring semester that begins in January.
“If we can get a good treatment and a vaccine in place and we get a drop in cases, enrollment may not suffer,” he said.
But touching again on the personal responsibility aspect of the campus plan, Damphousse said, “Our behavior drives the number of cases.”
“I think the answer is — not just for higher education but education in general and business — is that life as we know it is changing and society must change to meet the challenges. COVID-19 has forced us to think about how we do the things we do,” he said.
Noting that ASU has the largest online enrollment in the state, Damphousse said the system had the infrastructure to manage the March switch in mid-semester to all online instruction and the capability to do that again if conditions warrant.
“We have made changes in what we do, changes in how we house students and virtually every other area,” he said. “And, we’ll get better at it over time.”