RUSSELLVILLE — During the same week major universities elsewhere in the country announced that they would suspend in-person learning, Arkansas Tech University students masked up and walked into their first day of school, poised to sit 6 feet apart from their nearest classmate.
The university had no active coronavirus cases on campus heading into Wednesday’s first day of classes, university spokesman Sam Strasner said. Since March, when the coronavirus pandemic was first detected in the state, Arkansas Tech has had 27 cases among students and employees. Only six were living or working on campus at the time.
The atmosphere on campus Wednesday was mostly the same, according to Strasner. People have been returning to campus over the past several weeks, but Strasner said he has noticed people aren’t walking up to one another as freely to say hello, and facial expressions are harder to read behind masks.
“It’s just a little more reserved today,” he said.
Arkansas Tech is one of six Arkansas public, residential universities to start school this week. Southern Arkansas University started last week. The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock start next week.[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]
Some had active cases of coronavirus on campus last week, according to responses to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Arkansas Tech students roamed the relatively normal-looking campus Wednesday, lounged in chairs outside, and held spirited conversations around tables. Booths gave away free T-shirts if students took a survey.
Chairs also were cleared out, with some lined up against walls with caution tape on top of them. Custodial staff walked around buildings frequently sanitizing highly touched surfaces, like door handles. Signs and messages pained on windows reminded people that masks are required.
Nearly everyone was wearing masks, unless they were drinking, eating or keeping 6 feet away from other people.
Gallery: First day back at Arkansas Tech University[Gallery not loading above? Click here for more photos » arkansasonline.com/820atu/]
About 25% of classes at Arkansas Tech this semester are in-person and nearly 50% are partly in-person. Some students said they are glad to be be on campus and felt their courses have gone smoothly so far, but not everyone expects what they have now to last.
Katelynn Freeman and Gabriella Smith, both 18-year-old first-year students, said they suspect that what happens in Russellville — or somewhere else in the state — could affect Arkansas Tech even if the campus doesn’t have an outbreak. They expect to eventually have to do virtual-only learning.
Landen Ballard, a 19-year-old junior, expects that, too. He said he isn’t sure students can avoid touching the same surfaces as others, and said he feels like students may take more risks as they begin to feel more comfortable on campus.
Ballard sat outside Wednesday afternoon with his friend Zayne Parker, who works in campus ministry. Neither wore masks as they sat side-by-side, they said, because they already spend so much time at each other’s homes.
Smith, who lives on campus, said she’s not sure everyone in her dorm is following every rule, but feels comfortable with the distancing she can have within her residence hall, where she doesn’t feel like she has to wear her mask all of the time.
People are generally following the health and safety guidelines, Freeman said.
“We can’t guarantee everyone’s following the guidelines,” she added.
In-person learning and on-campus living have already faced setbacks elsewhere. Campus outbreaks at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Notre Dame University and Michigan State University forced all three schools to halt in-person classes just days into the semester. The University of North Carolina student newspaper reported students had thrown and attended parties during the weekend.
Unlike with nursing homes and correctional facilities — which are considered “congregate settings” — Arkansas doesn’t have a data report for residential college campuses’ coronavirus cases. The Democrat-Gazette requested records from all 10 of the state’s public residential universities detailing their numbers of active cases and rooms used for isolating or quarantining residential students.
UA and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff did not respond to the newspaper’s request.
Universities have set aside dozens of rooms for isolation and quarantine of residential students this fall, should they need them.
While many large universities in other states required residential students to be tested prior to moving in on campus — some required testing for anyone who planned to come to campus — Arkansas’ public universities have not. Testing has been limited in Arkansas, with capacity recently contracting and then expanding.
The University of Arkansas at Monticello had four active positive cases with one person in isolation on campus as of Wednesday.
The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith had four active cases as of Friday, and all were quarantining off campus.
UALR had five active cases as of Friday, and none of them were on campus within the 14 days before being tested, spokesman Jeff Harmon said.
The University of Central Arkansas had six active cases as of Friday, and none were in university housing. Another student tested positive this week and entered the university’s isolation housing, spokeswoman Amanda Hoelzeman said. Seven other students were identified as close contacts and have gone into the university’s quarantine housing.
SAU had 10 active cases as of Friday, and two were on campus, using two different empty rooms to isolate or quarantine from the rest of campus.
ASU had 12 active cases as of Friday. The university calculates its total cases by using reports from people who test positive, whether they are on campus or off campus.
As of last week, Henderson State University had not used any of its isolation or quarantine rooms for cases and reported only seven student-athletes testing positive for covid-19 in July.
Campuses have tried different ways to limit coronavirus spread on campus.
Arkansas Tech staggered move-in dates for the 2,500 residential students, limited to 200 students each day, and made everyone sign up for an appointment time.
Hand sanitizer is easy to find on walls in buildings. Chairs have been removed from tables in classrooms to keep students farther apart, and desks have been taped off to keep students from sitting in them.
The campus has virtual Fridays, too, Strasner said. He’ll be on campus Monday through Thursday and will then post a note to his office door that the space is not sanitized, keeping people away and letting custodial staff know it needs to be cleaned.
UCA, Henderson State University and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith also staggered move-in times, officials told the newspaper. Housing numbers are down anyway, as enrollment dips and students taking a larger load of online classes have elected to live off-campus.
Campus activities, such as freshmen welcome events, were moved outside. Meals include more disposable items, more to-go options and fewer opportunities for students to serve themselves. Housing directors have looked toward their professional organizations for guidance on how to reopen safely.
University officials said they had taken note of the issues at the University of North Carolina but can only speak to their own plans to reopen.
“Certainly, we’re watching how people are doing,” said Nikki Laird, assistant vice president for housing, community standards and division strategy at HSU.
Those university officials, and Strasner, said they hadn’t so far encountered students or employees refusing to wear masks or otherwise comply with health guidelines. Strasner said he thinks the statewide mask mandate helped students get used to having to wear masks before they ever arrived on campus.
The move-in went on without incident at Henderson State, Laird said.
“Our [resident assistance] staff complained about it being boring,” she said. “I told them that means the system is working exactly as designed.”
Students also are being asked to make some choices for themselves and have difficult conversations about their health and safety, said Beth Eppinger, housing and residential life director at UAFS.
The university has revamped its roommate agreements to include numerous questions about their preferences regarding coronavirus protective measures. Those questions include:
• Do roommates want to wear masks inside?
• Do they want to limit certain guests?
• How do they want to keep their spaces clean?
“It really gets into those nitty-gritty questions we want residents to be having with each other,” Eppinger said.
Residential assistants also have been trained for coronavirus-specific conflict resolution. They have been instructed how to ask people to wear masks and show people how to use masks, what to do if people aren’t complying with health guidelines, and what to do when roommates are in violation of the coronavirus aspects of their roommate agreements.
Students practice social distancing during a Principals of Collegiate Success class Wednesday in the Hall of Distinction at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville. More photos at arkansasonline.com/820atu/.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)