With SIUE soon approaching two full years of operating under COVID-19, many are hoping the pandemic’s end is in sight. However, administration has solutions and procedures to keep the spread of the virus under control.
SIUE officials announced late Wednesday that on-ground courses will resume on Jan. 18, with the requirement that all students, staff and faculty must be tested for COVID-19 every week, regardless of vaccination status. Appointments will be scheduled through SHIELD Illinois.
Dr. Jerry Kruse, dean and provost of the SIU School of Medicine, said the Omicron variant is the most easily transmissible COVID-19 variant yet, which is what makes it dangerous.
“According to the CDC data tracker, for the week that ended Jan. 1, 2022, 95.4 percent of [COVID-19] infections were due to Omicron. The other 4.6 percent were due to Delta. So, it has taken over. There’s no doubt about it,” Kruse said. “It also has more affinity for children, So the percentage of children getting infected and being hospitalized is more than we’ve seen before.”
According to SIUE Chancellor Randy Pembrook, the re-entry tests were because SIUE’s positivity rates had previously been very low.
“We realized that all through the fall, … our positivity rates were much lower than the surrounding communities. So, we decided to see what would happen and we created the Re-entry COVID Test Protocol,” Pembrook said. “On Monday and Tuesday we had lots of people that went through that testing process.”
However, Pembrook also said the results of these tests actually provided data that showed that SIUE’S positivity rate was not as low as it once was, which prompted the move to online classes for the first week.
“As we looked at data from those first two days on Wednesday, we had over 3,000 people test, and rather than a 1.4 or 1.7, we were running a 14 to 15 percent positivity, in all our groups,” Pembrook said. “Whether it was faculty or staff or students, everyone was at a minimum of a 10 percent positivity.”
Kruse said he believed many of SIUE’S positive re-entry COVID-19 tests were brought about by Omicron.
Controlling the spread and in-person classes
Kruse said the move to online was a necessary one. According to Kruse, vaccines and masks help stem the spread of COVID-19, but the best measure is always less gatherings.
“The bottom line on all of this with Omicron is that more stringent measures are going to be needed for a while. We’re going to need to tighten up on congregate gatherings, … we’re going to need to make sure that we use effective masks … and it’s of utmost importance that you get boosted now so you have at least partial immunity against Omicron,” Kruse said. “And then, when even newer boosters are made, I’m sure they’ll be made to be effective against Omicron.”
Although SIUE has taken the majority of classes online for one week, Provost Denise Cobb said there are still some classes that could not be moved fully online due to the content of the courses.
“Any performance-based classes, studios, labs and things of that nature, work with your department chair and your dean, and if you need to develop an exception, we view those cases and make sure that we have safe protocols in place. If we’re going to have exceptions, we want to make sure that we’re communicating clearly with students so that they can make sure that they’re available and we want to make sure we can serve students’ needs but do so safely,” Cobb said.
For those classes that are still in-person, Kruse said the importance of masks cannot be understated. However, according to Kruse, some masks are more helpful than others.
“Very effective masks are the level three surgical masks. In the SIU School of Medicine, we’ve asked everyone to wear a level three surgical mask or better,” Kruse said. “I will say, the cloth masks, with two layers that have a filter inside them are very close to as effective as the level three surgical masks. However, those with one layer are not effective, and gaiters are totally ineffective. As a matter of fact, gaiters might be less than ineffective. They might cause more infection.”
Director of Health Service Riane Greenwalt said masks are necessary to slowing and stopping the spread of COVID-19, but also other viruses and illnesses.
“Like last year, the use of masks, and the appropriate use of masks properly, has minimized [COVID-19]’s spread, as well as influenza up until this moment … We have not seen a great number of students with influenza, [but we] have seen influenza on campus already, before the semester break, and it was both Influenza A and B,” Greenwalt said. “When students are coming to us and telling us that they’re not feeling well, we not only check to see about [COVID-19], but we also check to see about the influenza.”
Regardless of which classes are in-person, faculty, staff and students may all have absences because of the pandemic this semester, and Cobb said understanding and patience is necessary from everyone.
“We may have situations where a faculty member needs a backup, someone to cover their courses, and I hope students will be patient in those situations. We may have students who are ill for the first class period and are unable to attend, so whether virtual or not, we’re still going to have challenges along the way that we’ll have to work through together to try to solve,” Cobb said.
Pembrook said availability of professors and other workers on campus is another reason for the move online.
“Every time we have a positive test, a member of a team is out of work for that period of five days minimum, and it could be more depending on if they have symptoms. We just have to have enough people to run the campus,” Pembrook said.
For students who are more concerned about the spread of COVID-19 and their return to campus, Assistant Director for Equal Opportunity, ACCESS and Title IX Coordination Kim Kilgore said there are options.
“You can request an accommodation if you have a pre-existing condition or you are more immune-compromised or susceptible to [COVID-19]. You can contact our office, which is the EOA Title IX office if you have any questions, and we should be able to help you answer those questions, but the first line is to try to do a remote work request,” Kilgore said.
There are other accommodations being asked of residential students moving back on campus, according to Director of University Housing Mallory Sidarous.
“We are asking that students limit the number of guests that come with them to continue to support those de-densification efforts during move-in. We generally do not see a lot of guests coming back for spring move-in. It’s usually just the student returning back with maybe just an extra tote bag after the Winter break,” Sidarous said.
For students still on campus, there are resources that are still available and remaining open for them, according to Vice Chancellor for Administration Morris Taylor.
“We ask supervisors to consider rotation schedules or modified employee schedules to achieve a balance of on-campus and remote work. Offices that provide critical student support to our on -the-ground and new students, please be mindful of what services will need to be available in-person, rather than remote, in this critical preparatory week, and make sure that your office has proper staffing to help students successfully transition to campus,” Taylor said.
Return to normalcy
For a full return back to campus, and a full return to a normal semester, Pembrook said there are many pieces that have to line up together.
“One of the questions that I know is one everyone’s mind is, ‘What exactly is the magic number? What’s the point at which we’ll know we can cross over back from an online environment, largely online, and be able to move back on the ground?’ And I would say it’s a combination of several factors,” Pembrook said. “One of them is that there’s an 8 percent threshold we’ve talked about all last year, so we hope to get that number below 8 percent. We hope to see a sustained downward trend in the overall omicron data throughout the state.”
Kruse said another way to expedite the transition back to campus is to get vaccinated. According to Greenwalt, there are many opportunities to do so.
“There is plenty of vaccine available in our area, and we’re very happy to collaborate with Madison County, as well as St. Clair County in order to get vaccines out for our campus community,” Greenwalt said.