Eager freshmen milled campus for a measly 12 days before their phones pinged with the alert from President Alger that JMU would temporarily transition to online instruction. In that timespan, 206 students tested positive at the University Health Center (UHC), and 410 students self-reported positive results.
Jordan Bernard, a junior intelligence analysis major, lived out of a suitcase when he arrived at JMU. He said he knew students wouldn’t be allowed to remain on campus long.
“I honestly thought we’d last longer,” Bernard said. “I mean five days of classes — I thought we’d at least hit two weeks.”
Students who lived on campus returned home wondering when they’d again stroll the Quad. JMU will officially answer that question by Sept. 25, but Director of Communications and University Spokeswoman Caitlyn Read said “students should plan to return to some level of in-person instruction on October 5.”
“We feel very confident at this point that we can do it safely based on the developments we’ve made in the last week and a half and will continue to make,” Read said. “But we aren’t going to compromise the health of the greater community.”
Read said JMU has faced a whirlwind of procedural changes to ensure the students’ return won’t turn out the same as in August. The university is launching a Stop the Spread hotline to answer questions the JMU community has regarding COVID-19. Additionally, Read said JMU is exploring ways to fortify areas with the most need on campus — like UHC — by either reallocating staff or bringing in new personnel.
To deter crammed dining halls, JMU dining is extending its hours to accommodate class period changes and expanding its grab-and-go options for meal plan holders.
After several images of overflowing JMU classrooms went viral on social media, JMU began investigating the causes of these instances and found student compliance was the root cause in some cases. Read said students were attending split hybrid classes in person on days their professor scheduled them to be online.
The student who posted a video of students littering the ground of a classroom, freshman computer science major Jacob Seefried, said he captured the video on the first day of class. Seefried said his professor said on the second day of class that he didn’t predict the large in-person attendance and couldn’t detect the hotchpotch of students strewn on the floor from his position at the front of the class.
“I don’t think it was an issue of student compliance, but an issue of just offering an in-person option to too many people,” Seefried said.
Another priority adjustment to pandemic operations is shoring up additional quarantine and isolation spaces. As of Wednesday morning, 66 beds were available to house infected students. Read said JMU will partner with hotels to bolster its isolation capacity.
Read said the associated costs of these changes are “significant and severe.” The estimated cost for cleaning equipment like hand sanitizer and masks for employees alone is $700,000, but Read said that number is “outdated” and costs now far exceed that. An updated figure won’t be available until the university conducts an analysis of the overall financial impact.
The university is basing its decision on the case count on campus, the positivity rate on campus and how the virus has trickled out into the Harrisonburg community, Read said.
According to The Breeze’s COVID-19 dashboard, JMU has logged 307 active cases and 1,062 recovered cases. Students and employees are counted as recovered 10 days after they’re tested. The positivity rate of tests conducted at UHC since Aug. 17 is 31.94%, though Read said this is because UHC only tests symptomatic individuals.
Read said JMU has no target number of cases or positivity rate it’s aiming to hit before issuing students the OK to return, but it’s paying special attention to the number of faculty members who test positive. Read said employees are the focus because they may be more vulnerable to the repercussions of the virus. Eight employees have self-reported a positive test since Aug. 24.
Although the number of active COVID-19 cases in Harrisonburg jumped from four before JMU returned Aug. 21 to 2,293 cases as of Sept. 16, Read said “we’re in really good shape” in terms of local hospital infrastructure. Read said Sentara RMH reported maintaining sufficient medical supplies and bed capacity to care for patients.
“It’s probably a little too early to tell if cases are transmitting from the JMU population,” Read said. “… We unfortunately expected the uptick in cases. I think it spread faster than we anticipated, and because we care about the community, that’s why we made this transition.”
Read said JMU is “in lock step” with Mayor Deanna Reed and city emergency planners. Read said an illustration of their partnership is Vice President for Student Affairs Tim Miller’s ride alongs with police to bust parties. Another example Read provided is Harrisonburg’s ordinance declaring 50 person gatherings illegal, however, when the Harrisonburg Police Department disperses a party with over 10 JMU students, they take names and slip the information to the university.
Harrisonburg’s Director of Communications Michael Parks said in addition to being in contact with JMU daily, the city is investigating additional ways to mitigate the spread of the virus, including developing a way to communicate directly with students. Parks said the number of cases and how rapidly they popped up is “alarming but not unexpected.”
“It would’ve been a miracle not to see a spike in cases,” Parks said. “We nearly doubled the size of the population of Harrisonburg.”
Although Read said she’s “confident” in JMU’s ability to reintroduce students on campus, Bernard said he “highly doubt[s]” students will be invited to return in October. He said he expected the university to monitor students’ daily check-ins on the LiveSafe app more rigorously — perhaps by requiring students to flash their green check denoting their symptomlessness before entering classrooms and dining halls — but Bernard said he experienced no repercussions for forgetting to conduct a daily check-in. He said he also navigated swarming dining halls and witnessed other students inappropriately wearing their masks.
“I prefer in-person classes,” Bernard said. “But I’m fully prepared for the email on September 25 that says, ‘Unfortunately, students, we cannot come back. We’ll try again in the spring.’”
Bernard said he thinks JMU should assign students dining times to cut down congestion and require entry testing before students return to campus — something JMU has expressed it won’t do, citing CDC recommendations.
Parks’ advice for students if they return is to stay home because “you’re safer in your pod.”
“Every single person has to do their part,” Parks said. “… Just one person not doing that can contribute to the spread … but we can’t force people to care about the wellbeing of this community.”
Contact Brice Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.