Few changes have been made to COVID-19 protocols since Fall 2020 as students begin their second semester of on-campus instruction during a global pandemic. In addition to mask requirements and limited gatherings, negative COVID test results were encouraged before returning to campus.
The biggest change for the new semester is limiting gatherings to 25 or fewer individuals. Groups of 50-100 were previously allowed with proper distancing and masks. The tighter restrictions have been placed in accordance with local and state guidelines due to increased cases in Indiana following the holiday season.
Ryan Blevins, Associate Dean of Students is anticipating group capacity to expand and become more similar to last semester.
“We hope that in the next [weeks], after a couple of weeks, we'll be able to lift that 20 to 25 cap to a bit of a larger number so that we can start having larger gatherings around campus,” Blevins said.
In response to student petitions calling for the university dashboard to be more transparent with their data, additional statistics were added to the site. The percent of beds available for quarantining, the number of students in quarantine and the total number of cases on campus are now available on the dashboard.
However, not all the concerns presented, such as a historical timeline showing rise and fall of case levels, were fixed in the updates and continue to lack clarity. The dashboard will continue to be updated and present new information, with the additional changes expected to be added within the next few weeks.
“We're not done with the dashboard yet… There were questions about, you know, can we put positivity rates up there? Can we do a historical, like a chart that shows us the history of the various cases and things? We're working on a lot of that stuff right now. So once we kind of get into a couple weeks into it, I think you're gonna see the dashboard is gonna continuously be updated with things and information based off of that feedback,” Blevins said.
In addition to dashboard frustrations and despite how emails sent out to students were worded, individuals were allowed to move in and return to campus without providing proof of a negative COVID test.
“We're happy that the vast majority of students and the faculty staff participated in that… For the residential campus, 99% of the students followed through on that… We're following up with those who have not submitted anything to us to see what the plan is and what their story is,” Blevins said.
Those who were not tested before arriving are now being asked to take rapid tests from the health center. While submitting a test before move-in does not mean someone did not contract the virus in the in-between time, it allows the university to limit exposure by keeping positive students from bringing the virus to campus.
“We've kind of popped our quarantine bubble, if you will, and we need to kind of reestablish that bubble around campus. So until further notice, we're going to ask everyone to wear a mask until we can get that bubble reestablished,” Blevins said.
Blevins explains most students were tested before arriving, and the rise in cases originates from everyone coming together in Valpo. The reformation of a sort of community immunity is what lowers cases.
“The other thing that we did differently for the spring than we did for the fall, we asked everybody to...either to take a test before they got back to check to make sure that they were negative at that moment in time,” Blevins said. “Or if they were positive within the last 90 days to let us know. Or if they started the vaccine program to let us know that as well.”
While classroom regulations and sanitization policies remain the same, residence hall mask requirements have reverted to how they were at the beginning of first semester. This means masks must be worn at all times in the dorms, except when in your own room or taking a shower. The aim of the tighter restrictions is to limit the spread and allow for these policies to be relaxed later in the semester.
Ultimately, the COVID task force and the President’s Council has the final say in whether or not restrictions will be lifted to allow masks to be removed when alone in public spaces.
“We started out the year where you had to wear your mask at all times. And then, as the semester progressed, and it felt appropriate, you were able to remove your mask if you were alone in a lounge space. If you're walking down the hallway alone, etc so still if you're a single person. If somebody didn't walk into the hallway or walk into the lab, you'd have to put your mask on,” said Katie Bye, Director of Residential Life.
Bye also encourages students to continue holding each other accountable and to reach out to RLCs or RAs for advice on how to approach someone breaking restrictions.
Further changes may include lessening of mask requirements as well as sample or survey testing of the campus. This would entail portions of the student body, faculty and staff to be tested to find asymptomatic cases and limit an outbreak. Details, as well as a timeline for the testing, are pending.