Keene State has instituted new protocols regarding COVID-19 on campus after other schools in the University System of New Hampshire (USNH) have moved to a period of remote learning.
The University of New Hampshire has suspended all in-person classes for the remainder of the semester following a surge of 385 positive cases at the spring semester’s opening, according to the school’s COVID-19 lab testing dashboard.
Franklin Pierce University went into a 10-day period of remote learning and Plymouth State University, which went remote on February 16, will return to in-person classes on Wednesday, March 3.
Plymouth State’s Interim Vice President for Communications, Enrollment and Student Life Marlin Collingwood said the school reached 145 cases when it decided to move to a period of remote learning. He added that, as of Saturday, February 20, the school had an active case count of 260.
According to Collingwood, the purpose behind the period of remote learning was that, with the incubation period of the virus lasting about 10 days after the first sign of symptoms, those case numbers should shrink and allow Plymouth to return to in-person classes.
“We are continuing to see positives go down which is fantastic,” Collingwood said. “We are cautiously optimistic we can slow the spread.” Collingwood added that whereas previously the positivity rate for the virus was 5.2%, as of this week that rate shrunk to 2.1%.
Collingwood said he thinks the primary reason behind the surge in cases was ‘COVID fatigue.’
“I think sometimes when you’re this far in [the pandemic] someone forgets to wear a mask because of fatigue,” Collngwood said. “I understand that but we have to remain vigilant.”
Collingwood added that the school is averaging 30-35 cases per week.
As other USNH schools have been forced to go remote, Keene State has adopted new protocols regarding the virus. Keene State College President Melinda Treadwell said the school is enforcing tight-fitting masks on campus and the school will begin testing its students twice-weekly starting the week of February 28.
This comes after the school saw 21 positive cases the week leading up to the new semester and another 14 the following week. The school’s current positivity rate sits at 0.48%. Treadwell added that twice-weekly testing will be optional for staff and faculty due to less cases being seen in that demographic.
Plymouth will start testing its population twice-weekly as well starting the week of February 28, Collingwood said.
In order to enforce tight-fitting masks on campus Keene State, President Treadwell said the school spent just under $7,000 for about 45,000 surgical masks.
Treadwell said a re-education on wearing masks will be provided as well.
“We are handing out these medical surgical masks because fabric masks can get loose,” Treadwell said. “And in order to stop the spread, we really need tight-fitting masks. These masks are reusable for one week.”
Treadwell said the school will be able to continue to provide fresh masks for students after theirs have expired. She said faculty will have extra masks to provide for students.
In addition to coaching people on how to properly wear a mask, COVID-19 Project Team Lead and professor of safety and occupational health applied sciences Dr. Wayne Hartz said the school needs to coach people to wear a mask off-campus and at social events.
“Students have shown incredible compliance, but most of the [COVID-19] infection has occurred off-campus,” Hartz said. “I went to college, I get it. But that makes the difference between getting sent into lockdown and attending classes in-person.”
The school is also requiring students to be wearing their wristbands that they get from testing in order to gain access to campus buildings like the dining commons, library, student center and recreation center. Testing results now have a quicker turnaround of 12-36 hours. Several class rooms and spaces have improved air handling, additional filters, room-air cleaners, while all are de-densified, according to Hartz.
Despite higher case numbers this semester compared to last semester, Keene State remains in green operational status, according to Keene’s COVID dashboard. Hartz said this color-coded operating system which ranges from green to red takes into account the condition of Keene State as well as its surrounding areas in regard to the virus. Hartz said he remains confident that the school will know when to move to a period of remote learning, should the need arise, because of the school’s trigger conditions.
“It’s not acceptable to gamble with people’s safety and we don’t do that,” Hartz said.
These trigger conditions include multiple ‘guidelines’ for the school that inform them on how well the virus is being handled on campus and surrounding areas.
Some of these conditions include the college’s positivity testing percentage, number of positive cases, number of quarantines and requirements for testing.
These conditions range from green to red. For example, if the positivity rate is between 0-0.5%, then the college is “green” in that category. If that rate is greater than 1%, then the college is “red” in that category. Keene State’s current positivity rate is 0.42% which puts it in green operational status for that category.
Keene State is “yellow” in the category of number of new cases per week. Green for that category is fewer than 10 cases per week, yellow is between 10 and 19 cases per week and red is greater than 20 cases per week. Hartz said all of these categories together make up Keene State’s operational status. President Treadwell said she is confident Keene State can remain on campus because of its three-week delayed start to the semester.
“We are adapting quickly,” Treadwell said. “If any institution can get through this, it’s us.”
Hartz said he is hopeful that through working to limit the spread of the virus, Keene State can host an in-person commencement ceremony for the Class of 2021.
“I have a vision of all of us in May with masks and spaced apart,” Hartz said. “We are gonna’ celebrate in the quad together. It will be sunny and warm with a breeze; It will be spectacular. That is my vision. I will do whatever I can in my power to get us there but I will do so safely and competently– no shortcuts.”
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