Today the University of Kentucky announced that it would reopen for the fall semester, bringing students back to campus and resuming in-person instruction. President Capilouto said that three teams are planning UK’s approach to this; we urge them to seek student input in their decisions. Many students were happy to hear we would return, but we also need UK to prioritize safety and well-being. We want to continue our education at a high level without endangering ourselves or others. For UK to bring students back in the fall, these areas of concern must be addressed:
Accurate testing and tracking has proven vital to containing outbreaks and limiting the spread of COVID-19. To return to campus safely, the university will have to implement free, fast, and convenient testing for students, faculty and staff. Consider testing out-of-state students immediately upon their return to campus.
EXPAND BASIC NEEDS SERVICES
College students have not been immune to the recession; many students work in service industries, like restaurants and bars, that were quick to close or downsize. Many of us did not qualify for government stimulus checks because we were claimed by our parents the previous year. We’ve faced unexpected costs from housing, moving and food. In the year ahead, students will need more support from UK to help with costs and acquire necessities like food and mental health services. If UK is planning to require students to wear masks, they must provide masks and also have hand sanitizer and soap that is accessible and free for students to take.
Tracking temperatures is a way to evaluate the likelihood of having COVID-19, as well as many other illnesses. But many students, especially those in dorms, do not have a thermometer of their own. Students can’t and shouldn’t make frequent trips to University Health Services for temperature checks. UK should distribute thermometers to students or set up stations on campus so that students can regularly check their temperature. UK should consider mandatory temperature checks before entrance into commonly used campus buildings, such as White Hall or the student center. If sports make a comeback, temperature testing should be required for admittance to games.
ADJUST ACADEMIC CALENDAR
When UK first went to online classes in the two weeks after spring break, part of the reasoning behind the move was that it gave a two-week barrier for students returning from trips to monitor for symptoms before returning to campus. Similarly, UK will have to avoid opportunities for students to leave campus and return within quick time frames. Fall break must be canceled and UK should adjust the academic calendar to have the semester end at Thanksgiving. In a typical year, students would return to campus for two or three weeks after Thanksgiving break. This year, UK should prevent that if at all possible. Finals could be held online the week after Thanksgiving, but students should move home for winter break before Thanksgiving in preparation for the second wave. To accommodate this, the semester could begin earlier in August or syllabi could be shortened to reflect a 14-week schedule. Many models project a second wave late in the fall; it would be best if students were home for winter break already, not experiencing the spike while on campus or bringing it back to campus from their hometowns after Thanksgiving. Throughout the semester students should take it upon themselves to reduce travel, if there is not a state or county-level mandate instructing the same. UK should maintain a no-travel list that includes hot-spots in the United States and abroad.
USE THE FULL EXTENT OF CARES FUNDS FOR STUDENTS
UK received $17 million from the federal government of part of the higher education relief provisions in the CARES Act. Half of that money must go to students and should be used to bolster financial aid and scholarships that have been affected by university budget cuts. The other half is to be used at the university’s discretion – and it should be used to benefit people, not the institution. Students will need assistance with food, housing, additional financial help, healthcare and more. The remaining half should go to these initiatives, or to struggling staff, and not into UK’s general funds.
PROMOTE OFF-CAMPUS HOUSING
The greatest hurdle in returning to campus is the close quarters inherent to dorm living. To decrease the density of these residential populations, UK should encourage students, including freshmen, to live off-campus. Students around Lexington could live at home, if they or their families are not high-risk. Other students could branch out to nearby apartment complexes, where many leases are being offered up as their previous inhabitants move back home. UK should consider partnering with apartment complexes to offer lower rates to students and consider allocating parking passes to students who choose to move off-campus. If fewer students chose to live in dorms, UK could potentially space inhabitants out over more rooms, instead of having two or four in every suite. UK should also consider restrictions on visitors to dorms and carefully schedule move-in times and procedures.
A PLACE FOR QUARANTINE
The major limitation to resuming in-person classes is the difficulty of social distancing in dorms. While not the whole solution, one crucial part of that step is the ability to separate sick students from the rest of the population. To send us back home to our families, or kick us out with no back-up plan, would be both foolish and cruel. UK should consider partnering with hotels, apartment complexes or other units that will likely stand empty to prepare quarantine locations for the student body and staff. Any initiative to quarantine should have plans for food and medical care at the location, and be accessible to faculty and staff as well. UK should also consider converting event venues like Memorial Coliseum into facilities for testing or basic needs services.
SUSPEND REQUIREMENT THAT SCHOLARSHIPS BE TAKEN CONSECUTIVELY
Many scholarships and financial aid offers are required to be taken in consecutive semesters; students who rely on these funds to afford college will be forced to return for the fall semester, whether their other circumstances align with that or not. By suspending the requirement that scholarships be used consecutively, UK would allow students who need to take a semester off time to do that without losing their funds. Students who don’t want to return to an abnormal semester could wait to finish their degree; students who are unemployed or otherwise affected by economic challenges would have time to save for their return; and the overall number of students on campus would decrease, making social distancing easier to implement.
INCREASED ONLINE ELEMENT
Distance learning was the default option when in-person instruction was canceled for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester. Not all subjects were equally suited to online classes, but it achieved the goal of finishing the semester and socially distancing students. A return to campus does not mean we should put an end to online learning. Instead, it should be more integrated into the existing class structure, particularly as social distancing must be maintained whether we return to campus or not. Large lecture classes should continue to meet online, perhaps with smaller recitation meetings held in-person. Meetings with advisers, counselors, professors and any university office should be online as well. Professors who do not feel comfortable teaching in-person classes, whether because of health concerns or any other reason, should be given the choice to teach online without punishment. If students are in quarantine because they may have been exposed, they should be able to virtually join an in-person class. While students are back on campus, UK should take the opportunity to work with students on their capacity for remote learning in case a move back to online learning is required.
ENFORCE SOCIAL DISTANCING
Online class sections are important, but they are not the only change that should be made to learning environments. Physically, classrooms will have to be rearranged to accommodate social distancing rules. Students will want to know beforehand how many people are in their class and if the room is adjusted for social distancing. Elevators must be monitored and the number of passengers limited. Dining halls should have a limited capacity, distanced seating, and no self-serve stations; or, they must continue with take-out only. In the spring semester, signs were put at drink stations prohibiting personal water bottles from being filled there, but this mandate was not enforced. Deep cleanings should happen regularly in all major buildings. Large events, such as K Week, should be canceled, and UK must discourage students from gathering in large numbers off campus. Buses must limit the number of passengers and all passengers should be required to wear a mask. UK should clearly articulate their expectations for social distancing, comply with all state guidelines and find a way to enforce social distancing among students.
EXPAND SICK DAY POLICY
University policy about sick days is communicated in syllabi and can vary from class to class; many classes only allow two unexcused absences, and excused absences rely on confirmation of a doctor’s visit and can also be limited. This standard is no longer acceptable. UK should expand the sick day policy to account for the recommendation that anyone who is sick stay home, no matter what illness they have. UK should also create contingency plans for students who contract COVID-19; missing classes should be the least concern to those students. The university and its professors must adapt to the necessity of expanded sick days by waiving the requirement of a doctor’s visit, allowing more sick days and implementing telemedicine for students so they can stay at home and still receive care. No student should be made to feel that they are sacrificing their education for their health or vice versa.
PLAN FOR OUTBREAK
Most current models about coronavirus predict a second wave in the fall, and potentially smaller spikes after that. Returning to campus will put students at risk, and UK must plan for the possibility of an outbreak on campus or in Lexington. Part of this plan should be clear benchmarks for policy changes, such as what number of cases would trigger a campus shutdown. The university must be cognizant of cases in the student body, among faculty and staff and at near-campus locations like grocery stores. UK should provide all students and employees with directions for what to do if they are showing symptoms – where they should go for medical advice and what they need to do if they test positive. UK should be prepared to do contact tracing for cases in the student body and notify students who were exposed. Within its faculty and healthcare bodies, the university has a wealth of expertise that they can draw on for this plan, and the administration should make use of it.
Above all, UK must frequently and transparently update the campus community on its plans for coronavirus response and a phased return to campus. Without information from the university about social distancing in dorms and classes, students may not feel safe returning to campus. Listen to experts and include students in the process; we deserve to know why these important decisions are happening the way they are. As committees plan, release meeting minutes or agendas so students are informed on the administration’s progress. We trust that UK will be thorough and methodical in their plans for the fall, but those plans must be communicated to students promptly, in detail and without artifice. The past few weeks have proven that fighting coronavirus must be a group effort. If UK does not extensively communicate plans and instructions for a return to campus in the fall, then the group will fail because of lack of preparation and understanding.