Dear parents and families,
We wanted to get a communication out prior to the weekend with some additional context for our current two-week pause, including our isolation and quarantine numbers, our positive test rate numbers, and more.
Before we get to that, though, our apologies to those who feel we have not communicated quickly enough or often enough. When it comes to COVID-19, information changes rather quickly at times, and we are trying to balance regular updates with the rapid rates of information change and our priority focus on direct student care. As we walk that communications balance beam there are times certainly where we totter and fall. We also are working hard to communicate directly with students via both electronic means and more interpersonal updates, especially for on campus students, from RDs and RAs and others.
We also want to say clearly that we know our students are hurting because of this two-week pause, and there are numerous things happening, sometimes behind the scenes, with our student life staff, our counseling center staff, our campus ministries staff, our professors, and many others to help your students navigate life from a spiritual and mental health perspective as a college student in a time of COVID-19.
In fact, an announcement in today’s edition of Student News (a daily email digest that goes to all students) said this:
“Caring for ourselves in the midst of pandemic restrictions can take extra intentionality. If you are struggling to feel well during our period of enhanced physical distancing, check out the Center for Counseling and Wellness (CCW) website at www.calvin.edu/go/counseling. You’ll find links to pandemic-specific resources, including mental health apps, exercise videos, and wellness tips. Students can also use the website to request CCW services, such as screenings, weekly group therapy, workshops, individual sessions, and wellness equipment (wellness room, lightbox lending program, etc.). And under our "Services" section, they will find links to our Calvin Unmasked peer listener app and our Therapist-Assisted Online (TAO) 24/7 mental health program. Follow the Center for Counseling and Wellness on Instagram or visit the CCW webpage for more resources.”
A Dramatic Rise in Our Numbers
This mental health side of our wellness efforts is, of course, in addition to the work of our health center staff—our on-campus providers and our nurses—who are working tirelessly to preserve the physical health of our students.
Suffice it to say, we have people literally working around the clock to care for your student, and we do not take this responsibility lightly nor are we unaware that the decisions we make with respect to COVID-19 have consequences (as do the decisions we don’t make).
We want to be clear about one other thing: our numbers were such the first week of February that this pause was completely necessary.
In one week, from Feb. 1 to Feb. 8, our isolation numbers went from five students to 29 students. These are students with a positive test result who have not met the criteria for release. This trend was most noticeable in our on-campus students.
In addition, with quarantine cases in one week, from Feb. 1 to Feb. 8, we went from 41 cases to 119 cases. These are people who are not confirmed to be infected but are a confirmed close contact of someone with a positive test result. And again, the trend was most significant in our on-campus students.
And as of today, Feb. 12, we have 82 students in isolation (so from 5 to 82 in 11 days) and 169 students in quarantine (so from 41 to 169 in 11 days). These numbers cannot continue to go up if we want to maintain the capacity to care for students in isolation or quarantine. They also cannot continue to go up if we want to do a good job with our contact tracing efforts, a vital tool in our ability to slow the spread of COVID.
In addition, our positive test rates for diagnostic tests (people who are symptomatic) are the highest they have ever been and are running on a daily basis above 50 percent. Finally, the students we are seeing who are testing positive are often exhibiting more significant symptoms than students were last fall, which frequently requires additional follow-up from our health services staff.
Pandemic Fatigue and Rising Numbers
Our hope is that the pause will start to lower these infection AND quarantine numbers and our positivity rates, and then we can get back to where we were at the start of the term in terms of our living and learning together. Our hope is also that if we can continue to demonstrate that we are able to manage the current situation well, then it makes it less likely that the county or the state will manage it for us.
We know that we are not alone in seeing this spring semester surge. In fact, there was a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday (Feb. 11) that noted many colleges are facing a similar situation. Three weeks into the spring term, Duke has had more students test positive than it did all fall.
It also noted the large number of schools, including Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, that have put their students on pause already this semester in an effort to slow rising case numbers.
A big factor is pandemic fatigue, and we are seeing that too. Plainly put: students are tired of following the rules, including best practices such as social distancing, consistent mask wearing, and more. We especially were seeing this in the dining halls, unfortunately.
In addition, more-transmissible variants of the virus have been found at several campuses and may be present at others. We are sending samples next week to a state lab to have them sequenced to see if any of the variants are present on Calvin’s campus, but we are acting under the assumption that they likely are, and our two-week pause was driven in part by that assumption.
What we are encouraged by is that the public health policy approach and guidelines remain the same for college campuses, even those that have the variants: requiring that people wear masks on campus, enforcing social distancing, limiting gatherings, and testing to find positive cases and then quarantining them and their close contacts.
Colleges and universities are also being encouraged to increase their testing, and we plan to do so at Calvin, including more testing of asymptomatic students.
Two-Week Pauses Not Unusual
But testing is just one component of what we do at Calvin collectively as students, staff, and faculty. Testing ultimately shows us how well we are following the procedures and protocols that we know help to slow the spread of COVID, including its variants.
The Chronicle of Higher Education article referenced above said that in the fall “some colleges successfully used two-week pauses to reduce infections without having to flip online and send everybody home.” That is our hope for our current pause.
We are all trying to do our best to do what is right. We feel very responsible for every life we have on campus, including both physical health and mental health.
While the state of Michigan COVID numbers are going down, the current outbreak on our campus over the past week indicates an infection rate almost 10 times higher than that of our surrounding county. We are obliged to act on this evidence, and quick action increases the possibility that we will be able to subdue this high infection rate and preserve in-person learning.
Yet, our response to these rising numbers is not as draconian as the “lockdown” language used by the media would have you believe. Students are still able to attend in-person classes, they can get take-out food from the dining halls, they can go to off- and on-campus jobs, they can walk the campus, visit the Ecosystem Preserve, and more. The restrictions that were put into place are intended to protect our students, especially our residence halls students where we have seen unprecedented spread of the virus.
Know too that the decisions at Calvin are being made by the president and senior leaders in consultation with our on-campus physicians and professors with degrees in public health, alongside Calvin administrators in student life, the academic division, and in careful consultation with the Kent County Health Department.
Appreciation for Parents
These many factors are carefully considered in real-time with the threat of a highly transmissible virus always in the picture. These decisions are never going to be perfect, and as we make them, we are always considering the many important values that we hold as a Christian university, including the value we place on face-to-face learning, the value of worship together, the value of social interactions in the residence halls and faculty lounges, the value of packed gyms for games and packed recital halls for concerts, and, yes, the value of a healthy campus, including young and old alike.
Our faculty and staff are working diligently to care for students and are finding creative ways to cultivate community during these two weeks of enhanced physical distancing. Likewise, we know that parents and families are also key players in supporting their students through this time, and we appreciate all the ways you are encouraging your students to stay connected, to reach out to others for support, and to continue following campus protocols.
We covet your continued prayers for wisdom and energy. Please join us in praying that there will be a rapid reduction in the infection rate on campus and that we can return to more normal operations quickly.
The Parent Relations Team and the COVID Response Team