Coronavirus cases among college students, faculty and staff in West Virginia remained low this fall. At the end of the semester, both public and private schools had an average cumulative positivity rate of only 2 percent across all four-year institutions after maintaining a cumulative positivity rate of 1 percent for several months.
To put this in perspective, just over 1,000 students and just 95 faculties and staff have tested positive for the virus at West Virginia University since July. At Marshall University, only 413 people on campus, both students and employees, have tested positive for the virus since the school began persecution.
According to Sarah Armstrong Tucker, Chancellor of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission and the Community and Technical College System, there have been only four hospitalizations in the entire higher education system.
Tucker said the students were the ones who really worked to keep campus safe.
“I was very pleasantly surprised how many students came on moving-in days with masks on without being asked by the institutions. [and they] I didn’t have to be asked to put on a mask, ”Tucker said. “They have always been an important part of our safety puzzle. You did a really good job. “
Tucker said students and staff did well keeping things clean, social distancing themselves, and enforcing quarantines once outbreaks started.
Classes at higher education institutions are slated to resume Tuesday, January 19, but not before campus-wide tests are carried out at all schools. Some campus populations are also starting to get vaccinated.
Governor Jim Justice announced in his virtual press conference on December 30, 2020 that all students, faculties and staff of all higher education institutions will be tested for the coronavirus before returning to campus in the spring.
“We’re going to test everyone who goes back to our colleges and universities, as we did earlier this fall,” Justice said.
He also announced that surveillance tests will continue when students and staff return to campus. During the fall, 10 percent of college and university students on campus were randomly tested for the coronavirus every week. The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission (HEPC) reported that surveillance tests throughout the semester in students and staff showed a total of 381 positive cases of the virus.
Higher education institutions started vaccinating certain areas of the campus population last week. 28 of the state’s 43 public and private higher education institutions have started giving vaccinations. The HEPC reports that the initial allocation of vaccines for the college system was 1,000 total doses to be given last week. In addition, an additional 1,000 doses were received from the college system on Tuesday, January 5th, to be given this week. Second doses are provided according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.
The first wave of vaccinations at colleges included people over the age of 50 working on campus or those in high-risk positions such as the Faculty of Health Sciences or on-campus security.
All 43 state higher education institutions are eligible to distribute vaccines to their campus staff, but some may not yet meet the criteria to start distributing them. According to HEPC, the distribution is based on whether the sites are open, whether they have people who can be vaccinated and are available, and whether they have at least 10 people who meet the criteria.
To expedite the nationwide distribution of vaccines, Tucker says there is discussion to include nursing students, but nothing has been announced at this point.
Aside from testing and vaccine distribution, officials hope to improve in some key areas this spring, including student mental health.
The fall semester 2020 was tough for many students. Those first starting college had to do so in a pandemic. For high school students, they had to return to a completely different campus.
“I was a little nervous about the online learning factor. That scared me a little, ”said Amanda Barber, Shepherd University senior, communications major and student journalist.
Barber said online learning is initially a problem for her and many of her colleagues. She said it was an adjustment and it wasn’t always easy to stay organized. She said there was also a fear of going back to personal class.
“I understand there have been people who feared that returning to Shepherd would be some kind of super-spreader event,” said Barber. “Fortunately, that didn’t seem to be the case.”
And she’s right, that didn’t happen, as quoted above.
However, there were four challenges that Chancellor Tucker said it became clear in the fall: mental health, food insecurity, broadband access issues, and high school graduates failing to fill out the free application for state student aid (FAFSA).
“We rejected 1,700 FAFSA high school graduate applications. We lost 4,500 PROMISE applications, ”said Tucker. “So we’ll be spending a lot of time on it in the spring.”
Tucker said the decline in FAFSA and PROMISE scholarship applications was due to the lack of in-person events she and her staff would host in a typical year.
While these events have been scrapped because of the pandemic, Tucker said they are already holding online events to encourage application filling out.
However, the mental health and wellbeing of the students were the main concerns.
“We’re definitely going to be looking at student mental health this spring and we’re trying to make sure our facilities have the resources they need to provide the mental health they care for not just students, but their faculty and staff as well Tucker said.
The isolation brought on by virtual classes, social distancing, or students who chose to take the semester entirely online contributed to many of these concerns. The students were also afraid of contracting the virus.
Barber, the Shepherd student, said she needed to find ways to stay current on her mental well-being.
“What I did to fight that was just keep in touch with people, call my friends daily, check in with them every day, have FaceTimes and the like,” she said. “Another thing that really helped my sanity was getting up and making my bed every day. It’s a small thing. But it is a really good way to start the day and it gets me into a productive mindset as well as getting up and putting on clothes other than sweats or pajamas. “
Regarding the other two issues – food insecurity and broadband – Tucker said many food banks reopened mid-term to ensure students in need had access to food. She also said universities would also help students who might be quarantined to get food.
Broadband access continues to be a problem in many regions of the state, but Tucker cited the Kids Connect initiative, which launched 1,000 WiFi hotspots across the state, as a temporary solution. She said more needs to be done but is unaware that new initiatives are currently being discussed with the governor’s office.
From a student perspective, Barber said college officials did an overall good job in the fall semester. She is looking forward to finishing her final semester and graduating in the spring. She has one problem, however, and that goes with graduation.
“I just hope the college officials are really working this year to make the degree special if it is to be something that has to be below the norm because of the pandemic,” she said.
Many college and high school degrees were canceled or changed this past spring as the coronavirus pandemic in the United States was just beginning.
Barber said she hoped none of the graduation ceremonies this year had to be virtual.
“I really hope so [this] Semester the numbers will be down with COVID-19, “she said. “When this vaccine comes out, hopefully our college officials will be quick to ask us to get these vaccines so we can really work on making the next semester as normal as possible for our students.”