If University of Missouri projections hold and enrollment doesn’t slump because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some 30,000 University of Missouri students will begin arriving in town this week.
They are coming to a county that saw its count of coronavirus infections more than triple in July and, while daily averages are down slightly, has seen 24.4 new cases per day since August began.
The return of students is producing anxiety among some and is one factor causing the Columbia Board of Education to consider delaying its start date until after Labor Day.
There has been strong evidence recently that the virus is spreading easily among college-age groups, with 207 of Boone County’s 535 cases during the three weeks ending Friday, almost 40%, among people aged 15 to 29.
Missouri has one of the nation’s lowest overall infection rates and second-lowest among states in the Southeastern Conference, but has seen that infection rate nearly double in the past three weeks. Over that time, the state has averaged 1,257 new infections per day.
"That really is going to change the dynamic of our community," Stephanie Browning, director of the Columbia/Boone County Department of Health and Human Services, told the Columbia school board last week about the return of MU students.
There was little concern about catching or spreading COVID-19 in three MU students interviewed Thursday. The students said the university’s plan for the return of students is sufficient.
"I’m not worried about it," said Lindsey Dellert, 19, a sophomore from Gurnee, Illinois, who wasn’t wearing a mask. "I’ve been here all summer."
The plans MU has developed are adequate, she said.
"I think it should be fine," she said.
Students seem to accept that the rules are intended for their protection, said Tyler Page, MU director of residential life.
"We are not getting any pushback from students," Page said. "As our students safely integrate back into the community, hopefully that anxiety will subside."
Called "Show Me Renewal," the plan for students returning to campus was developed by several task forces led by an executive committee.
There will be social distancing in residence halls and rearranged seating in lounges and common areas. Face coverings also are required in common areas.
Maintaining social distancing among roommates in rooms and suites may be more difficult.
"The key is changing students’ behaviors," Page said.
Roommates also will be required to complete a shared living agreement, worked out among themselves.
All students will be required to complete COVID-19 training, Mun Choi, University of Missouri System president and MU chancellor, said Thursday after a meeting with Gov. Mike Parson in Jefferson City. The training also will be required for all university employees.
No visitors will be allowed in residence halls for at least the first three weeks of the semester, including visitors from other residence halls, Page said. The visitor ban will be reviewed before it is changed, he said.
Athletes were the first group of students to return. Workouts began June 8 and all athletes were tested for COVID-19 before participating for the first time.
The university will not require other students to be tested before classes start, something other universities, including SEC rival Kentucky, are doing.
Instead, students will be asked to monitor themselves for a checklist of symptoms, any one of which requires a student to stay out of class or seek medical attention if symptoms are severe. The checklist includes a body temperature above 100.4, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, chills, headache, unexplained muscle aches, loss of taste or smell and gastrointestinal symptoms.
A mobile phone application with the symptom checklist for students is in development, said MU spokeswoman Liz McCune.
Face coverings are required for everyone on campus.
The dining halls have prepared for the influx by allowing space for social distancing, barring cash transactions and increasing grab-and-go options. There won’t be any self-service buffets, but there will be buffets where staff members serve the food items.
Student move-in to residence halls starts Wednesday. Students have scheduled their times to move in and are allowed two adult helpers. There won’t be groups of volunteers helping as in past years.
Students won’t be able to change rooms, Page said.
There won’t be any mass testing of students for COVID-19 because, officials say, the testing is a snapshot in time and someone who isn’t positive when tested may be positive the next day, possibly creating a false sense of security.
Testing all students wouldn’t catch students where the virus is incubating but symptoms haven’t developed, said John Middleton, a member of the executive committee that developed the "Show Me Renewal" plan.
He’s a professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine and new chairman of the MU Faculty Council.
Monitoring for symptoms and contact tracing is a better solution, the one that MU is following, Middleton said. Testing will be based on student symptoms.
The precautions established in the plan are meant to protect everyone, McCune said.
"Our approach with our students is closer to assuming everyone is positive," McCune said.
Testing athletes but not all students is not a matter of favoring the student-athletes, who earn millions of dollars for the university, but to meet conference requirements, McCune said.
Student-athletes represent a different situation, said Middleton, whose son plays soccer.
"They compete in very close contact for very long periods," Middleton said. "They’re going to be in close contact with very few barriers."
When competition begins, the athletes also will be in close contact with athletes from other locations, he said.
There’s also good oversight of the student-athlete population, he said.
Middleton acknowledges the anxiety among some and that people experience a spectrum of emotions related to the disease.
"We have put structures in place that will reduce or eliminate transmission," Middleton said.
TRAINING AND TRACING
A campaign to educate students about changes in behavior will include social distancing, face masks and hand hygiene, he said.
Any student who tests positive will be contacted by contact tracers about people they have been in close contact with, according to the plan. The plan encourages students who test positive to isolate at home.
Roommates and other students in close contact with the student who tested positive will be placed in quarantine housing for 14 days under the plan. Meals will be delivered to the doors of students in quarantine housing, and other services will be provided by a care team.
An idea being considered, but not decided, is requiring students to reveal to university officials if they have a positive COVID-19 test. Otherwise, if a student doesn’t volunteer the information, it’s protected private medical information.
MU students interviewed near campus Thursday had few concerns about returning.
The city’s face mask ordinance was a good move, said Ty Guinn, 20, a junior from Chicago, who put on his mask for the interview.
"Personally, I don’t have much concern," Guinn said. "Being a young kid, I’m not concerned about dying of COVID."
His exposure will be even more limited because all of his fall courses are online, he said.
A more nuanced response came from Ashley Butler, 20, a Joplin sophomore. She wore a mask to retrieve something from her car in the parking lot of her apartment.
"I know, especially in a college town, there’s going to be a risk," Butler said. "At the same time, if everyone’s wearing a mask and being smart about it, the risk will be reduced."
Will people be smart, though?
"It all just depends on the person," she said. She plans to be smart, she said, noting her masked trip to her car during which she ended up encountering a reporter, also masked.
A young person’s mentality is that they’re invincible and they’re not going to die, but young people should also be concerned about their parents and others who could catch COVID-19, she said.
A repeat of the March closure of campus won’t happen unless the disease spreads at a rate that overwhelms the capability of hospitals to treat patients, Choi has said. He has said it won’t be a "knee-jerk" decision. He doesn’t rule it out, either.
University officials have worked closely with the health department in developing its plan and establishing case investigators and contact tracers, Middleton said.
"I think we’ve got a good plan in place," Middleton said. "We have mechanisms to monitor compliance, rates of disease, available resources. This is a very fluid situation."