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Fall college classes kick off with COVID-19 warnings, miles of Plexiglas

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – After months of planning and preparation for a new semester under the coronavirus pandemic, Molly Coomes was nearly as eager as Purdue University officials to resume in-person classes this week.

Some of the details, though, would still have to be worked out.

As the masked sophomore, coffee in hand, headed to her first class on the West Lafayette, Indiana, campus where masks are mandatory and lecture halls are socially distanced, she realized her mistake.

“I thought, ‘Why did I do that?’” Coomes said of the coffee. “I can’t take a drink, because I feel like taking a mask off is like breaking a law around here.”

Things didn’t get any easier in class, which was interrupted by technical issues that crisscrossed the campus. Then her professor acknowledged that he was in the vulnerable age range for COVID-19, asking his students, Coomes said, “Please don’t kill him.”

“It’s definitely really weird,” Coomes said. “I thought it was going to be really chaotic, with no structure. But I think they’ve worked really hard to have a plan. … But I really like it. I’m glad to be back.”

Yet even as Purdue reopened on Monday, other U.S. campuses either were retreating to remote learning temporarily – in the case of Butler University in Indianapolis, and Notre Dame – or for the rest of the semester, as in the case of Michigan State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

At the University of Alabama, another high-profile school to reopen with in-person instruction, more than 1,000 positive COVID-19 tests had been recorded after a week and half of class, prompting Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox to say fall plans were “in serious jeopardy.” 

Now a spotlight is on Purdue, where university President Mitch Daniels — a former Indiana governor — has been outspoken about the need for in-person instruction, comparing it to a civic duty. 

“To tell (students), ‘Sorry, we are too incompetent or too fearful to figure out how to protect your elders, so you have to disrupt your education,’ would be a gross disservice to them and a default of our responsibility,” Daniels wrote in May for an opinion piece in the Washington Post.

Over the summer, Purdue piled up five miles of Plexiglas for classrooms and dining spaces, purchased 1 million face masks, outlined 783 social distancing plans for instructional spaces, delivered 50,000 wellness kits to faculty, students and staff, tested roughly 40,000 students before they arrived, hired dozens of contact tracers, converted dining halls into grab-and-go operations and found ways for 65% of university staff to work remotely.

Still, Daniels confided with faculty this month about the prospects of pulling off a semester that on paper is scheduled to last in person until Thanksgiving.

If you’re worried about the next 13 weeks, join the club,” Daniels said. “It’s a big one.”

A student sits in the shade by the Purdue University engineering fountain Monday in West Lafayette.
A student sits in the shade by the Purdue University engineering fountain Monday in West Lafayette.

Students in quarantine, but ‘ample space’

On Monday’s opening day, 9% of the roughly 40,000 expected to be on campus did not have the testing clearance required to move into a Purdue residence hall or to attend a class, according to figures released by the university.

As of Friday, the school had reported 60 students had tested positive for COVID-19 in the previous seven days, bringing the total to 80 confirmed cases since Aug. 1. Purdue’s figures also showed 12 university employees – including three in the past seven days – had tested positive.

“It’s way too soon for conclusions,” Daniels said Friday in videos posted to social media and YouTube. “It’s surely way too soon for celebrations, but it’s not too soon to say, ‘Thank you,’ for the overwhelming cooperation and compliance we’ve seen. It’s really helped us get off to a good start. At least that’s how it looks to me.”

Purdue officials did not elaborate on the confirmed COVID-19 cases, including questions about how many students were told to quarantine after coming in contact with those infected. But at least three houses with more than 100 students combined – a fraternity, a sorority and cooperative house that already had been suspended for ignoring social distance guidelines at a party – had confirmed they were in quarantine, with students on lockdown and arranging classes remotely at the start of the semester.

Dr. Esteban Ramirez, Purdue’s medical director, said Purdue was monitoring on-campus and off-campus student housing. Purdue set aside 800 to 900 rooms for isolation space for those who tested positive.

“We do have ample space at this point,” Ramirez said Wednesday.

Students cross the State and Grant streets intersection at Purdue University, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020 in West Lafayette.
Students cross the State and Grant streets intersection at Purdue University, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020 in West Lafayette.

‘Half online, half on campus’

For students and professors ready for class, the start of class took some getting used to, in part due to technology outages that played havoc with Purdue’s academic management platform and nationwide issues with the video conferencing system Zoom.

“It’s going to be pretty difficult, with everything moved online or partially online, at least to start with,” Tyler Darmon, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, said while waiting outside to take in a lecture that wasn’t loading on his computer. “Like this, I doubt we’re going to make it through a whole semester smoothly.”

Darmon said he didn’t realize the courses he signed up for to be in-person would be available in-person on a rotational schedule, under Purdue’s “hyflex” model that mixes classroom and online lectures.

“We found that out after getting here and paying all that money,” Darmon said. “So that was a bit of a shock. … Online was a struggle for me last semester because it was very difficult for me to focus at home. So I thought being on campus is a good environment to study and focus. But most of it is online anyway, it seems.”

Sabrina Allen, a junior studying animal sciences, agreed: “It’s definitely different, how you’re half online, half on campus.”

Sarah Connors, a senior animal science major at Purdue University, sits in the shade by the Purdue Bell tower before her afternoon classes Monday in West Lafayette.
Sarah Connors, a senior animal science major at Purdue University, sits in the shade by the Purdue Bell tower before her afternoon classes Monday in West Lafayette.

Eric Kvam, a professor of materials engineering, opened the semester behind new safety equipment for the classroom and a video lecture system for those taking the class remotely.

“The in-class portion went as well as expected for a tumultuous semester beginning,” Kvam said. “All of the normal tools were functional, the Plexiglas barrier was minimally obstructive, and the small number of students present could readily be well spaced out.”

The online portion, though, thanks to technical problems, was another story. He wasn’t sure if those working remotely could see it.

“I will be chasing down that aspect today,” Kvam said.

Students walk across Purdue University's campus Monday in West Lafayette.
Students walk across Purdue University’s campus Monday in West Lafayette.

‘Huge weight on everyone’s shoulder’

After some early doubts about the prospects of getting through the semester, Kvam said he was encouraged when summer students and those who came for orientation experienced low infection rates.

“If this can continue for about a month, I expect we can probably finish the semester with residential and in-classroom students,” Kvam said. “While some may relax a bit if things are going quite well, I think the vast majority will behave in the careful manner that got them to that point.”

Jeff Maconi, a senior studying mechanical engineering technology, started Monday with an 8:30 a.m. class on the west side of campus – “Surprisingly, all went well there,” he said – before a dead sprint back to his apartment east of campus for a 9:30 a.m. online lecture.

“Barely made it,” Maconi said. “And the online class was canceled.”

Things got weirder for his 10:30 a.m. class on campus, where his professor was locked out of the classroom and had to spend half the class time searching for someone with a key.

Maconi said a lot has been weird since arriving on campus.

“There’s a huge weight on everyone’s shoulder it seems,” Maconi said. “I can’t go see my friends and give them a hug or invite them over for dinner and to hang out. It’s all the work of college, minus the fun of being able to socialize in person without being 6 feet apart. … (I) never thought some of my first responsibilities of the year would be to go and buy two weeks’ worth of food should I need to quarantine.”

Students queue inside Earhart Dining Hall for lunch Aug. 13 at Purdue University in West Lafayette.
Students queue inside Earhart Dining Hall for lunch Aug. 13 at Purdue University in West Lafayette.

Maconi said he’s seen more students condemning parties than participating in them. Same goes for mask requirements around campus and face shields in labs, knowing that a handful of infections could be all it takes to sink the in-person aspect of Purdue this semester.

“It’s inconvenient, for sure, but people are willing to accept these inconveniences for the greater good,” Maconi said. “They hear all these stories of people refusing to wear masks, that their rights are violated, and so on. But at the end of the day, everyone here seems to be working together.”

Still, heading into the weekend, Daniels’ message to campus on Friday came with a plea: “Please be extra careful this weekend.” 

This article originally appeared on Lafayette Journal & Courier: COVID cases at Purdue: College fall semester includes masks, warnings

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