FHSU faces fall break test after keeping virus numbers under control

Blaise Mesa
Hays Daily News
In this March photo, students walk past Picken Hall at Fort Hays State University.

Fort Hays State University soon became a COVID-19 cluster after it welcomed students back in August. The school has since mitigated and managed the spread of the virus, but now the university is approaching its next coronavirus hurdle: sending students home for Thanksgiving.

There were 48 cases of COVID-19 on campus, 36 people in quarantine and 17 people in isolation by Aug. 31, according to FHSU’s virus dashboard. In the school’s most recent update to the dashboard, all the metrics it tracks have decreased, and the school of around 12,000 students had 11 positive test results in the period Oct. 31 through Nov. 6. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment listed FHSU with 16 cases over the last 14 days in Wednesday’s latest cluster summary report.

Scott Cason, chief communication officer at FHSU, said the August spike is attributed to student behavior, like students gathering after not seeing one another all summer.

While some campuses have altered academic schedules for a post-holiday break spike, Cason said FHSU has no plans to change its fall break or learning model.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Nov. 9 that in-person gatherings that bring people from different households, like college students returning home, potentially poses a higher level of risk than virtual celebrations or celebrations with cautious family members from the same household.

Jason Kennedy, Ellis County Health Services director, has children, and said if they were in college, he would want them to come home.

“The pandemic is not going to stop me from loving my kids,” he said.

Kennedy said students should take additional precautions 14 days before they plan on traveling back home, and make as few stops as possible when returning home.

He said even if someone is remotely symptomatic, they should get tested and avoid traveling until they receive a negative test.

“We all look for a slower pace in life and right now is time to have that slower pace,” Kennedy said. “Hang out at home, watch a movie, see mom and dad, and try and protect yourself as much as possible.”

The CDC recommends families continue to practice social distancing and avoid hugging or shaking hands with “others not from their household.”

Cason said FHSU still plans to invite students back to campus the week after Thanksgiving because he said COVID-19 precautions are working.

“When we had that spike, I think that woke all of us up that we need to take this more seriously as a community, and I think we have,” Cason said.

The Critical Incident Policy Group meets multiple times a week and monitors COVID-19 on campus to potentially recommend COVID-19 policy changes, which the group has not had to do yet. In the summer, Cason said school administrators worked to find the best way to teach students safely.

Cason said the university already had the infrastructure in place to deliver courses in a limited-size, hybrid mix, but said the courses best taught in person, like lab courses, were tweaked and taught in eight weeks so they could be taught quickly and end before Thanksgiving.

Cason also pointed to the low case numbers after Labor Day as an indication that the campus could trust students over holiday breaks.

The FHSU COVID-19 dashboard said there were 12 positive cases, 33 students in quarantine and five students in isolation for the week of Sept. 19-25, which was between 12 to 18 days after Labor Day when COVID-19 symptoms would be present.

Haley Reiter, junior tourism and hospitality major at FHSU and Student Government Association president, said students realized they needed to take precautions seriously or risk losing in-person instruction.

“Students are more invested than ever,” she said.

Reiter is pleased with the COVID-19 precautions FHSU has taken, and even though she is concerned there could be a post-fall break spike, she said she isn’t “overly worried” it will happen because she has seen students take precautions more seriously after the original outbreak.

“They are going to be around their grandparents, so they are not going to be going out to the bars or being in large groups before Thanksgiving,” Reiter said. “I think it will be as successful as coming back from Labor Day.”

FHSU offers testing to symptomatic people in its student health center, and the campus offers surveillance testing, which tests a cohort of people, like students in a dorm or faculty working in the same office, to monitor the pandemic on campus.

“Right now our systems are working,” Cason said. “We have been pleased overall with how the campus community has responded ... don’t quit practicing health and safety protocols you adhere to while you have been here when you go home.”