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How does COVID-Safe, Thunder Strong Compare?
As the US heads into a third potential peak in coronavirus cases, the Record investigates how other midwestern colleges are taking precautions.
By Daniel Rees
Oct. 16, 2020
Roughly 90% of four-year higher education institutions are offering some form of in-person instruction this fall. While Wheaton’s “COVID-Safe, Thunder-Strong” policy heavily emphasizes mask-wearing and social distancing, other schools throughout the Midwest have approached coronavirus precautions differently.
At Northern Illinois University, a public college located 36 miles west Wheaton, 16,769 students are enrolled this semester, compared to the 2,234 undergraduate students at Wheaton. Students in NIU residence halls are living without roommates since half the student body is online. Floor lounges have been closed and students are only allowed inside of the residence hall in which they live.
“There’s a lot less intermingling on the floors,” said NIU freshman James Long. “But I feel like a lot of people are willing to go out and meet new people right now, like they’re trying harder; it’s easier to make some friends in the common area.” So far, it seems to be working: NIU’s COVID-19 dashboard reports 322 positive tests this year, and 298 recoveries.
A more sobering story unfolded at Notre Dame University, in South Bend, Ind. Similar to Wheaton’s prevention plan, the elite private school of 12,681 students limited large gatherings and required masks. Students were highly encouraged to return to campus, and freshmen who did not want to attend in-person, excluding international students unable to acquire visas, had to defer their enrollment until next year.
Classes began on Aug. 10. Every student was required to present a negative COVID-19 test before returning to campus. But within a week of classes starting there were already 171 cases on campus with 104 students testing positive on Aug. 17 alone. In a video address to students, Notre Dame President John I. Jenkins linked the spike in cases to off-campus gatherings.
“We’re very much a ‘work hard, play hard’ kind of school,” said junior Amanda Kruger. “So we work hard Monday to Thursday and play hard Friday to Sunday. That’s why we had that big spike at the beginning. There were a lot of off-campus parties.”
According to Kruger, students have to bring a suitcase of personal belongings and homework sufficient to cover a 10-day quarantine when they go to get tested. If a student tests positive, the campus has six isolation locations where infected students quarantine until they can present two negative tests.
For the second and third week of classes, Notre Dame moved all courses online and students were only allowed to socially interact with housemates. All common spaces were closed, and police dispersed crowds on campus by driving squad cars through the quad. After those two weeks, the number of COVID-19 cases dropped and Notre Dame resumed in-person classes.
“I think now that we can show that we can actually flatten the curve, and now that we have a handle on cases, I’m feeling pretty optimistic and think we will last until Thanksgiving,” said Kruger.
As of the publication of this article, Notre Dame has reported 832 total cases of COVID-19 on campus, including the university’s president.
It’s a different story at Hillsdale College in rural Michigan. The administration there has enacted fewer Covid-related regulations than most colleges.
Hillsdale’s campus houses nearly 1,400 students. Because Hillsdale receives no federal or state aid, the college has more autonomy in determining their coronavirus response, and Hillsdale has not maintained a COVID-19 dashboard with current disclosure of campus cases and quarantines.
“The governor [of Michigan] is very aware of the fact that Hillsdale has readiness [to countersue] and willingness to engage in action if there’s any pushback from the government,” freshman Trent Kamp said.
Hillsdale began the term with a two-week trial period where all students were required to wear masks, social distance and complete daily health screenings. At the end of that period, a leadership team determined that masks were only required in small, enclosed spaces such as faculty offices.
“Because of peer pressure, it’s been a little bit harder to hold students to the standard [of wearing a mask] because it’s already been relaxed,” said Kamp.
Wheaton Senior Class Co-President Natalie Kral transferred from Hillsdale as a sophomore. She commented on Hillsdale’s approach in contrast with Wheaton. “Hillsdale is very pro-freedom and free speech,” Kral said. “It’s probably the administration saying ‘be smart and do with that what you will. Wheaton has been more careful with letting students off-campus than Hillsdale has. I’ve seen a lot of Hillsdale students that have been travelling a couple hours away.”
So far, Wheaton’s Covid-Safe, Thunder-Strong approach has paid off: the COVID-19 dashboard reports only two positive cases to date.
Wheaton College President Philip Ryken expressed enthusiasm for Wheaton students’ adherence to campus COVID-19 guidelines. “We are halfway through the semester, and God has kept us remarkably safe and healthy thus far. We have a real hope of staying together on campus through November 20, which is a testimony to the dedication of our faculty and the strong commitment of our student body to love well in this time of coronavirus.”