Hitting pause on in-person classes was the best way for University of Pikeville officials to get ahead of a growing COVID-19 cluster.
Pikeville President Burton Webb said the university was running out of beds — not for the 32 confirmed student cases during the late September spike — but for the more than 80 who had been exposed to the virus and needed quarantine, leading to the halting of in-person classes last month. Students will begin returning on Saturday.
Unlike their larger, public university counterparts, which can stretch larger budgets to monitor their several thousands of students, Kentucky’s small, private colleges have to work with less cash and less resources. But to many small college administrators, their size gives them a number of key strengths in their fight against COVID-19: An ability to pivot quickly if things aren’t working, and in some cases, the ability to widely test nearly the entire student body.
“We’re a rural, small college that operates on a tight budget, but we’re doing the best we can,” Webb said.
How have Kentucky’s small colleges handled COVID-19?
Kentucky’s small colleges have had varying degrees of success mitigating the spread of the virus among students.
Commonwealth Baptist College on Versailles Road has had the most cases among private colleges in Fayette County with 77 since March — 70 of those cases have come since students moved into the college in mid-August, Lexington-Fayette County Health Department spokesperson Kevin Hall said. It’s unclear how large the school’s enrollment is. Jeffery Fugate is the president of the college. He also pastors Clays Mill Baptist Church in Jessamine County, which health officials labeled as a COVID-19 hot spot in June. Fugate disputed that anyone had contracted the virus at the church.
According to its COVID dashboard, Union College in Barbourville, had an outbreak among one of its sports teams in late August. The college tested the team and the entire dorm where the team lived — about 200 students — and came away with 28 positive cases, nearly all on the unnamed sports team. Currently, Union is reporting only one active case.
Some colleges have seen only a smattering of cases since classes began. Berea College in Madison County has reported less than five student cases since the beginning of August and President Lyle Roelofs sends near-daily updates to the campus about where and why students and employees get put into quarantine.
In one late September Friday announcement, Roelofs celebrated “that we have not experienced significant intrusion of the coronavirus into our campus community.” He discouraged partying and instructed students who wanted to go out that Friday evening to attend a home-run derby or mask-up and protest in the wake of the Breonna Taylor grand jury decision.
“Stay safe, stay negative, don’t go to parties,” Roelofs wrote, signing off.
Until late September, the University of Pikeville had also only seen the occasional “one-off” cases where a handful would test positive and another handful would quarantine. But through smaller group gatherings among some students — “where two roommates get together with two others” — Webb said a cluster began to form and the university reached its highest COVID-19 protocol. The local health department advised the university to halt.
Testing, anonymous forms and brownie-giving golf carts
UPike had about 600 undergraduate students living on campus this year, plus another approximately 500 who live in the community. The university also has about 800 students in its medicine and optometry colleges. When students return this weekend, they’ll be re-tested, Webb said, and only those who test negative will be allowed back in their dorms.
Webb said he’s hopeful that cheaper surveillance testing techniques will enable the university to get ahead of the virus. By late October to early November, he hopes to get a pooled saliva testing protocol online. The university would collect saliva samples of groups of students and test the sample once for the presence of the virus. If the sample tests positive, then that batch of students would get a round of individual tests to determine who among them has contracted the disease.
By January, Webb hopes the university will have the capacity to test every student individually, multiple times a semester — something he said that’s feasible for their smaller nearly 2,000-student campus.
Constant surveillance testing has worked well for the 1,400-student Centre College in Danville. During the first month of testing, half the on-campus student population was tested weekly. Now, the college tests at least a quarter of the student population weekly. A quarter of all employees also gets tested weekly. Centre has only seen 11 positive student cases, and President Milton Moreland said the campus was able to empty its quarantine dorm two weeks ago.
Moreland also credits the school’s “rigorous” social contract, which was developed by student and faculty leaders before the semester, for helping to slow the spread. Many other institutions have a social contract, but Moreland said Centre’s is “more enforceable.”
As part of the contract students agree to not having gatherings larger than 10, wearing masks in public settings and “the biggest one” is generally not leaving the confines of Danville, aside from specific exceptions like a funeral, Moreland said. Students have access to anonymous forms to report behavior violating the school’s social distancing guidelines. Those reports were initially numerous, Moreland said, but have dwindled as the semester has gone on.
Like other colleges, Centre has tried to give students alternative outdoor, small group activities to give students some chances at semi-normal social interactions. Chief Communications Officer Michael Strysick said two weeks ago, the college hosted an outdoor carnival day — complete with giant checkers and Spikeball — for students to attend in smaller groups.
On Fridays and Saturdays, staff in golf carts roam the campus doling out brownies to students who are following the rules and reminding others to keep their distance “as gently as possible.” Some students have been sent home for not following the rules, Moreland said, and have moved to taking their classes completely online.
“If you don’t like the regulations or if you don’t think it’s as healthy as an environment as you’d like then all of our classes, every one of our classes is available online,” Moreland said.
About 250 Centre students are currently doing class online-only, mostly by their own choice. About 50 of those students have expressed interest in returning to on-campus instruction, Strysick said.
Moreland said the campus’ location in Boyle County, where cases have been relatively low, has also given them a distinct advantage. He added that while the college is celebrating now, the virus could creep in if they let up.
“We’re humble,” Moreland said. “We remind ourselves that we walk a really thin line.”
Containing the spread among Lexington students
In more urban centers, containing the spread of the virus has proven to come with its own set of challenges. Transylvania University officials said they face many of the same challenges as Lexington as a whole.
According to the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department data, the 1,100-student Transylvania has had 63 cases. Robin Prichard, the special assistant to the president for public Health and the pre-health program coordinator, said the university, like others, tested every student who returned to campus. The university uses its “health pass” system to continue to monitor students.
Through the system, students and employees answer questions every day about if they’ve been near someone who has been infected with COVID-19 or if they have any symptoms. Based on the answers, the system can give students green, yellow and red designations. A green health pass is needed to access some buildings on campus, like the new W. T. Young campus center, and the campus clinic gets notified of yellow and red designations.
Those students have follow ups with campus health officials, which can lead to more testing and possibly quarantine.
About half of Transylvania’s courses are fully online, most of the rest are hybrid and there’s a handful of completely in-person classes, said S. Rebecca Thomas, the dean of the university and the vice president for academic affairs. Because of the way the university has altered its class schedules, some students will have classes that meet four to five times a week — a departure from the typical two to three times for college courses.
“It’s an intensive experience,” Thomas said. “That’s been an adjustment I think. If you’re used to having two or three days to do an assignment from one class meeting to the next and now you’re meeting every day, it feels very different, because you sort of don’t have evening off from Spanish homework.”
Generally, Transylvania officials haven’t seen large student gatherings on campus, but Megan Moloney, the university’s spokesperson said if the university has an off-campus student test positive, it can lead to a large group of students going into quarantine, especially if several people live together.
Unlike the cross-town University of Kentucky, Transylvania students will get a fall break at the end of October. Students are generally still encouraged to stay on campus but at the conclusion of the break, all students will be re-tested.
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