Preventing COVID-19: University officials detail COVID-19-related decisions

Kameron Moses, a cashier at United Provisions in St. Louis, is no stranger to precautionary measures. While his job did not require him to sport a face mask and gloves, Moses saw it as the safest bet. “I don’t want it to get in my system,” Moses said. “I want to make sure that I don’t bring it home and that I don’t give it to other people I’m talking to around me.”

On March 11, SIUE extended spring break by week in response to COVID-19. Four days later, the school announced that all on-campus courses will be moved online until the end of the semester. Behind these decisions is a team working around the clock to keep up with the news and examine what is best for students. 

The core team behind pandemic-related decisions includes the vice chancellors, Director of Health Services Riane Greenwalt, and others. Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Jeffrey Waple said the extension of spring break served to keep students safe and make things easier on the team.

“If we had everyone here – all our students, faculty, staff – I don’t think we would be able to plan like we are now,” Waple said.

The team started meeting to discuss the virus at the very beginning of March. According to Waple, things slowly ramped up from there until more and more cases and closures happened. This led to the eventual extension and move online. 

“I think as March 6, 7, and 8 turned into 9 and more cases were popping up in the United States … that’s when – nationally – we started to wake up a little bit more,” Waple said.

This shift to all online courses may be daunting for faculty, especially those who are less computer literate than others. The school has hired extra help in order to assist faculty in moving their courses online. Waple said many of the faculty have also stepped up to help others through the change. 

“Our own faculty are commenting to each other ‘here’s what I did, here’s a link, here’s how you can do it.’ What’s interesting is people are really rallying around resources that maybe they’ve gotten from another institution or we have here,” Waple said.

There are also many classes that aren’t made to be taught online. Professors for subjects like dance and sculpting are being forced to find work arounds to transition to online.

While COVID-19 is far more serious than anything the US has faced in a long time, it isn’t the only virus schools have had to deal with in recent memory. In 2009 H1N1, a form of swine flu, caused mass panic. Waple said colleges responded to the two viruses very differently. 

“I was the dean of students at Northern Kentucky when H1N1 came on … It just didn’t have the spreading impact that this one has … Which I think is the big difference. This one is rapidly spreading, and there’s no cure,” Waple said. 

Director of Housing Mallory Sidarous said they have clear goals in mind that guide their decisions to move people out of their dorms and shut down as many facilities as they can.

Part of these goals are to promote practices and guidelines encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, including social distancing. The WHO suggests individuals maintain at least 3 feet of distance between themselves and anyone who is coughing or sneezing.

“We as an institution are doing what we believe is best for the community, and that can be making hard decisions, but it also is important to recognize the role that we play in flattening the curve, slowing the spread, supporting social distancing, and that we have a space to do that,” Sidarous said. “A lot of the decisions are driven by those goals.”

She said before, they were only focused on making the facilities clean to prevent the virus from spreading.

“When this started, we did begin making changes to just higher touch areas, doorknobs, stairwells, were the areas with additional cleaning throughout the day,” Sidarous said. “The consideration [two weeks ago] was just the health and safety of the people that were still currently in the building, people working in the building.”

Sidarous said that now, with the quick spread of the COVID-19, they decided it was best to move as many students out as possible to slow down the spread.

“There’s also been additional follow-ups after people are in the building, but it’s also part of the greater, bigger picture in terms of just trying to practice good health, and where we can, help make our impact, which involves higher cleaning to high touch surfaces,” Sidarous said.

Part of the new decisions being made in terms of supporting social distancing is choosing to not just move students out of freshmen residence halls, but upperclassmen residence halls as well.

“We are moving towards asking students in all areas to check out unless they need to request to stay,” Sidarous said. “So there are some populations of students who may have special circumstances that need to request to stay on campus, and students can do that.”

University Housing is considering each request on an individual basis based on how necessary it is for them to stay, while still keeping enough space to be able to provide social distancing.

“We have to be mindful of students that, this is their permanent home and they have nowhere else to go,” Sidarous said. “Students who need to request to stay can go through a process to do that.”

The decisions being made for the campus are based on rapidly changing news. Waple said keeping up with everything and deciding what to do has been hard.

“The pandemic planning team … is spending so many hours on this that so many people will never see … Because it just doesn’t shut off, right? You can’t really step away from it, except maybe to sleep at night. And then turn on the news and see what the new news is,” Waple said.

Amidst all the uncertainty, Chancellor Randy Pembrook has kept a positive outlook. He said people are strongest at times like these.

“We will get through this … We will find a way to defeat it. I think that when you have difficult times like this, you see the best in people,” Pembrook said.

For more information about COVID-19 and SIUE’s decisions go to the school’s coronavirus information website.

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