University responds to COVID-19 pandemic

Although 11 of the 14 public universities in Alabama closed school, extended spring break or opted for all online classes in the upcoming week, class at the University of North Alabama remains in person despite the threat of COVID-19.

COVID-19, a strain of the coronavirus, originated in Wuhan, China, in Dec. 2019. According to the New York Times, Alabama has five reported cases of COVID-19.

University officials met this morning to determine their plan of action including President Dr. Kenneth Kitts, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost Dr. Ross Alexander, Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Kimberly Greenway, and Chief Enrollment Officer Mr. Ron Patterson. Faculty Senate President Dr. Lee Renfroe, Staff Senate President Amy Thompson, Student Government Association President Sam Mashburn, Shared Governance Executive Chair Felicia Harris and Director of Communications and Marketing Michelle Eubanks attended.

“That’s a group of people who are very representative of their constituents,” said Director of Communications and Marketing Michelle Eubanks. “That’s why that group was gathered.”

The council of academic deans was also present. Dr. Amber Paulk represented Dean Sara Lynn Baird from the College of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Chris James represented Dean Katie Kinney from the College of Education and Human Sciences and Dr. Tera Kirkman represented Dean Vicki Pierce from the Anderson College of Nursing and Health Professions.

“Our deans for the Colleges of Nursing, Education, and Arts and Sciences had to be in Montgomery today for an Alabama Commission on Higher Education meeting which UNA had three items on the agenda,” Eubanks said.

Alabama reported its first confirmed case of coronavirus in Montgomery this morning, and President Trump declared a national state of emergency.

“More of that should be taken in consideration with how we approach being on campus,” said student Josiah Rains. “It’s just one of those things where you really can’t be too careful. I think that with all the hysteria going on and with everyone freaking out, I think that just makes it hard. I do believe that going online should be the number one priority.”

Part of the shared governance structure includes the committee on Safety and Emergency Preparedness (SEP). Executive director of health and well-being, Teresa Dawson, brought the university’s dated pandemic plan about two months ago to the SEP committee.

“’[She] said this really needs to be revised. Let’s take a look at it again,’ and we were in that process,” said Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Kimberly Greenway. “She was in the process of getting the skeleton of a new plan to us when all of this hit. So, we’re in the middle of following the former plan and following what we had done on the new plan so it’s kind of a combination.”

The SEP committee also worked to keep the campus community informed about COVID-19 through the UNA Digest, a weekly email blast, and information on the health center’s website.

“For us, we’re looking at we don’t have cases,” Dr. Greenway said. “We want students to get the real time experience at the university and make decisions as we go along based on real time data.”

UNA will hold all classes online beginning March 29, the Monday following spring break. Although the university will remain open during this time, it encourages students to remain off campus. Medical, counseling, disability, student recreation, and other services will stay open according to the press release.

“What we’re trying to balance still providing our students with a top-notch education and the student experience they want to have and balancing that with the safety of our community and safety always comes first,” Dr. Greenway said. “But we also don’t want to be reactive and go out and make decisions way ahead of time that we wish we had not made when it gets there.”

For students like Rains, staying off campus isn’t an option. He works as an intermural score keeper and facilities monitor at the Student Recreation Center (SRC) on campus.

“I do have a second job,” Rains said. “But I do depend on the monthly check [from the SRC], yes.”

Off campus, Rains drives for Pizza Hut, but he works anywhere from 12 to 20 hours a week at the SRC.

“Working at the SRC, there’s so much foot traffic and there’s so much sweat, it causes bacteria,” Rains said. “We do a good job of cleaning but sometimes there’s just too many people in there.”

Rains reported that Director of the Student Recreation Center, Glenda Richey, and Executive Director of Student Affairs Auxiliary Programs, Bret Jennings, can close the SRC if they chose. Like officials keep saying, it’s a balance.

“If the university is still open, and there’s still students wanting to use the facilities that they pay for, we have to step up as a staff to provide that for them,” Rains said. “However, it is very unfortunate that we will have to work those hours.”

Student workers at the SRC are encouraged to swap or give up their shift if they feel ill. When the university is open, students can access University Health Services.

“They are fully staffed; they are operating,” Eubanks said. “These are people who have trained for any and all kinds of health crisis. This is the one that we’re facing now, and we’re ready for that with the right equipment, appropriate equipment for the situation, as well as the staff to see us through this crisis with our students on campus.”

All university related international travel and non-essential domestic travel is suspended. If students had traveled prior to this change, they will be prescreened before entering the clinic. More information is available on the health center’s website.

“If you contextualize where the actual virus is, this morning was the first time it’s been in Alabama that we’ve had a reported, confirmed case in Alabama, so we’ve been trying to make the decisions literally hourly, sometimes every 10 minutes, honestly,” Dr. Greenway said. “At the same time that we’re trying to make sure we’re keeping our community safe; we’re trying to contextualize what’s going on and we’re trying to use real time data to do that.”

All university events of over 100 people have been canceled or postponed until further notice. This puts large events like this year’s spring concert, Blackbear, and graduation at risk for cancellation.

“Realistically, there’s a possibility that [they] could [be cancelled],” Dr. Greenway said. “We’re trying to make decisions with current data and we’re trying to not be reactive but we’re trying not to be so far ahead of ourselves that we’re making decisions without having real time data to do so. Why would we do that prematurely until the data actually says, ‘okay, now it’s time to do that?’”

As time progresses, students, parents and the UNA community should be on the lookout for more information from the university.

“We would not make decisions any differently if these were our own children than we’re making right now,” Dr. Greenway said.