Kent State begins fall semester amid pandemic, works to avoid outbreaks

Paige Bennett News Lab

Kent State University announced Monday that all university-sponsored meetings and gatherings of more than 10 people must be held online. The announcement came days after the university started in-person classes for the first time since March, when it closed its campuses because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

As the fall semester begins at universities across the country, many fear it could lead to outbreaks in college towns and areas heavily populated by students. Twenty-six thousand cases of COVID-19 and 64 deaths have been associated with American universities since the start of the pandemic, according to a survey by The New York Times of more than 1,500 colleges and universities. 

Kent State reported 12 cases of coronavirus associated with the Kent campus, according to its online dashboard. The university expects approximately 3,800 students to occupy the 5,600 available beds in the residence halls this semester, said university spokesman Eric Mansfield in an email. The university is not offering triple rooms and left one residence hall open in the event students need to isolate. 

Kent State also introduced safety principles for being on campus, known as the “Flashes Safe Seven.” Students and faculty are expected to wear face coverings, wash their hands frequently, stay six feet apart from others and monitor themselves daily for symptoms of COVID-19. 

“We know that people can spread this before they develop symptoms and potentially even without having any symptoms ever,” said Tara Smith, professor in the College of Public Health at Kent State. “So that’s our biggest concern, and that’s why we really emphasize our Flashes Safe Seven, wearing masks and doing distancing and hygiene measures.” 

If a COVID-19 outbreak occurs, Kent State will evaluate criteria such as the number of cases, the availability of tests, personal protective equipment and isolation space and compliance with the Flashes Safe Seven principles to determine if the university needs to change campus operations, according to an email sent to the Kent State community Aug. 27 by Manfred van Dulmen, interim associate provost for academic affairs. 

“We are prepared for all situations, including the possibility that we must adjust our mix of in-person and remote courses (including the possibility that some courses currently taught in-person may move to remote delivery, while courses that cannot be delivered remotely continue to be delivered in-person), or once again convert to all remote instruction, whether it be for a few weeks or a longer duration,” the email states. 

With students returning to Kent, Michael Anguilano III, public information officer for the Kent City Health Department, said it is important for people to continue wearing masks in public and practicing hand hygiene and social distancing. 

“It’s the same things we’ve been hearing for months,” Anguilano said. “It’s just when you get into a college town, maintaining the social distance and large gatherings being limited to ten people or less becomes a little bit more of a priority because college is a very social thing.”

Many colleges nationwide experienced spikes in cases of coronavirus since students returned to their campuses. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill moved to remote instruction after it reported several clusters of coronavirus in residence halls and sorority and fraternity houses. Similarly, the University of Notre Dame suspended in-person classes for two weeks on Aug. 18 after more than 100 students tested positive for the virus. 

Concerns that some students will not follow public health guidelines led some universities to suspend students. Ohio State University suspended more than 200 students as of Aug. 24 for violating coronavirus safety measures. The University of Dayton also announced it would not allow students who violate safety protocols to live on campus. 

Smith said parties and large social gatherings can lead to outbreaks because they bring a lot of people together in close proximity. A person who has COVID-19, but is not experiencing any symptoms can still give it to others, she said. Large gatherings make it easy for asymptomatic individuals to spread the virus, especially if they are not wearing masks or social distancing. 

Although people may not like restrictions on social gatherings or having to keep a distance between themselves and others, Anguilano said it is critical they abide by the guidelines set by the Ohio Department of Health. 

“It’s really [about] adhering to the public health guidelines,” Anguilano said. “It takes a group effort to end or reduce the spread, but it only takes one person to keep that spread going.” 

In Portage County, cases of coronavirus declined in recent weeks. The county, which reported its first case of coronavirus in early March, recorded 16 cases in one day on April 2 before the number began to drop in May and June. Cases started to increase again in July and reached a peak of 18 cases in one day on July 21. As of Monday, Portage County stood at a Level 2 in the Ohio Public Health Advisory System, indicating “increased exposure and spread” and the need for a high degree of caution. Portage County has recorded 882 confirmed cases, 124 hospitalizations and 65 deaths to date. 

In a press conference Aug. 20, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said a bartender at a restaurant in Kent did not wear a mask and claimed a medical exemption. They later tested positive for COVID-19, along with their boyfriend and two roommates. Anguilano said he could not disclose the name of the restaurant or the employee, but that the Kent City Health Department is aware of the situation and worked with the establishment to address it. 

Taking precautions and following health protocols is necessary because it is proven to help reduce the spread of coronavirus, Anguilano said.

“We don’t like to be looked at as the bad guy, but all the science says that masking and hand hygiene and maintaining social distancing and avoiding those parties does work,” Anguilano said. 

This article was produced through a reporting partnership with the Collaborative News Lab @ Kent State University. Contact Paige Bennett at [email protected].