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Education

With Fall Semester A Success, State Universities Begin Vaccinations, Hope For A Safer Spring Term

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Coronavirus cases among college students, faculty and staff in West Virginia remained low this fall. By the end of the semester, both public and private schools averaged a cumulative positivity rate of just 2 percent at all four-year institutions after holding a 1 percent cumulative positivity rate for several months.

To put that into perspective, West Virginia University saw a little more than 1,000 students and just 95 faculty and staff members test positive for the virus since July. At Marshall University, just 413 people on campus, both student and employee, have tested positive for the virus since the school began tracking.

Additionally, amid the entire higher education system, there were only four hospitalizations, according to Sarah Armstrong Tucker, chancellor of both the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission and the Community and Technical College System.

Tucker said students were the ones who really stepped up to keep campuses safe.

“I was very pleasantly surprised by how many students, without prompting from the institutions, came to move-in days with masks on, [and they] didn't have to be asked to put a mask on,” Tucker said. “They've just consistently been a big part of our puzzle to keep things safe. They’ve done a really good job.”

Tucker said students and staff did well keeping things sanitized, engaging in social distancing and enforcing quarantines as soon as outbreaks started.

Classes at higher education institutions are set to resume on Tuesday, Jan. 19, but not before campuswide testing occurs at all schools. Some campus populations are also starting to get vaccinated.

Gov. Jim Justice announced in his Dec. 30, 2020 virtual press briefing that all students, faculty and staff at every higher education institution would be tested for the coronavirus before returning to campus in the spring.

“We’re going to test everyone coming back to our colleges and universities just like we did at the beginning of the year in the fall,” Justice said.

He also announced that surveillance testing would continue when students and staff return to campus. During the fall, 10 percent of the student and staff campus populations were randomly tested for the coronavirus each week. The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, or HEPC, reported that surveillance testing yielded a total of 381 positive cases of the virus among students and employees throughout the semester.

Higher education institutions began vaccinating certain pockets of campus populations last week. Twenty-eight of the state’s 43 public and private higher education institutions have started administering vaccinations. The HEPC reports that the initial allocation of vaccines for the higher education system was 1,000 total doses, to be given last week. Additionally, 1,000 more doses were received by the higher education system on Tuesday, Jan. 5, to be given this week. Second doses will be provided per manufacturer’s recommendations.

The first wave of vaccines at colleges included individuals over 50 years old and working on campus, or those in high-risk positions such as health sciences faculty or campus security.

All 43 of the state’s higher education institutions are eligible to distribute vaccines to their campus employees, but some may not meet the criteria yet to begin distribution. The HEPC said distribution has been based on whether campuses are open, whether they have people who are eligible to be vaccinated and are available, and whether they have at least 10 people who fit the criteria.

To speed up the vaccine distribution statewide, Tucker said there are discussions happening to get nursing students involved, but nothing has been announced at this time.

Beyond testing and vaccine distribution, officials also hope to improve in some key areas this spring, including student mental health.

The fall 2020 semester was tough on a lot of college students. Those starting the college experience for the first time had to do so in a pandemic. For upperclassmen, they had to come back to a very different campus.

“I was a little bit nervous, because of the online learning factor. That scared me a little bit,” said Shepherd University senior Amanda Barber, a communications major and student-journalist.

Barber said online learning was a concern at first for her and many of her peers. She said it was an adjustment, and it wasn’t always easy to stay organized. There was also some fear, she said, about coming back to in-person classes.

“I understand that there were people who were afraid that coming back to Shepherd was going to be kind of a super-spreader event,” Barber said. “Luckily, that didn't seem to be the case.”

And she’s right, that didn’t happen, as was cited above.

There were four challenges, though, that Chancellor Tucker said became glaringly apparent in the fall: mental health, food insecurity, broadband access issues, and high school seniors not filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

“We are down 1,700 FAFSA applications for high school seniors. We're down 4,500 PROMISE applications,” Tucker said. “So, we'll be spending a lot of time on that in the spring.”

Tucker said the dip in applications for FAFSA and the PROMISE scholarship has been due to the lack of in-person events that she and her staff would hold in a typical year.

While those events were scrapped because of the pandemic, Tucker said they’re already starting to hold online events to encourage filling out the applications.

But mental health and student well-being were the highest concerns.

“We’re definitely going to be looking at student mental health this spring and trying to make sure that our institutions have the resources that they need in order to provide, not just students, but their faculty and staff with the mental health care that they need,” Tucker said.

Isolation brought on by virtual instruction, social distancing or students opting to complete the semester fully online contributed to a lot of those concerns. Students also had anxieties about getting infected with the virus.

Barber, the Shepherd student, said she had to figure out ways to stay on top of her mental well-being.

“What I did to combat that was just staying in touch with people, making daily calls to my friends, checking in with them every day, having FaceTimes and things like that,” she said. “Another thing that really helped with my mental health was getting up each day and making my bed. It's a small thing. But it's a really great start to the day, and it puts me in a productive mindset as well as getting up and putting on clothes other than sweats or pajamas.”

As for the other two concerns — food insecurity and broadband — Tucker said many food banks reopened halfway through the semester to ensure students who were in need had access to food. She also said universities would also help students who might be quarantining to get food.

Broadband access continues to be a problem in many areas of the state, but Tucker pointed to the Kids Connect Initiative, which created 1,000 WiFi hotspots around the state, as one temporary solution. She said more needs to be done, but wasn’t aware of any new initiatives being discussed at this time with the governor’s office.

Barber, from a student perspective, said she thinks higher education officials did a good job overall in the fall semester. She’s looking forward to finishing her final semester and graduating in the spring. She does have one concern though, and that’s walking at graduation.

“I just hope that this year the higher education officials really work to make graduation special if it is going to be something that has to be less than the norm because of the pandemic,” she said.

Many college and high school graduations were canceled or altered last spring as the coronavirus pandemic was just starting to ramp up in the United States.

Barber said she hopes no graduation ceremony this year has to be virtual.

“I’m just really hopeful that [this] semester, the numbers with COVID-19 will have gone down,” she said. “Hopefully with this vaccine coming out, our higher education officials are going to be quick in requiring us to get those vaccines so that we can really work to make the next semester as normal as possible for our students.”


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