On September 9, the COVID-19 Leadership Team announced new health and safety restrictions in response to a spike in positive COVID-19 cases on campus.The Sep. 9 email indicated that the College would reevaluate the temporary restrictions at the end of September “to consider if we are able to return to previous protocols.”
The new protocol changes prohibit singing indoors. As a result, chapel worship will now be held outside at the end of services, and students are supposed to wear masks while singing, even outdoors. Chrouser Sports Complex has now reverted to the reservation system utilized during the 2020-2021 academic year, once again requiring students to reserve workout equipment in advance. The updated guidelines also require more frequent testing of unvaccinated students in addition to stricter capacity limits for non-instructional indoor events.
These guidelines align with Governor J.B Pritzker’s August 26 executive order, which reinstated a mask mandate for everyone over the age of 2 in an indoor public place, and required vaccinations or weekly testing for healthcare personnel, K-12 school employees, higher education students and employees and employees at state-owned congregate facilities.
Members of the COVID-19 Leadership Team affirmed that more serious restrictions — such as a return to all-remote learning for a week or two — would only be implemented as a last resort. The leadership team, which includes top administration officials and staff from across departments, weighs a variety of factors in determining whether to enact more stringent measures in response to a particular COVID-19 spike. They particularly take into account the availability of isolation beds at East Campus, of which there are 24 for women and 36 for men.
“There is not one single variable that determines what we do,” said Chad Rynbrandt, vice president of finance and operations and a member of the Leadership Team. “We look at things like how many current active cases there are, but also those in isolation plus quarantine. Another variable we look at is the capacity of our isolation spaces in East Campus and the two apartments.”
Despite the 79 percent vaccination rate among students and the continued masking protocols, the number of positive cases and students in isolation has increased significantly since the start of the semester. According to the online COVID-19 dashboard, the number of isolating students peaked at 60 on Sept. 8. Open availability at the College’s on-campus isolation beds dropped to 35 percent during this period. The number of isolating students has since fallen to 4 students in isolation, with 0 new cases, as of Sept. 19.
Members of the COVID-19 Leadership team cited the spread of the more contagious Delta variant as one reason for the spike. According to the Sept. 9 email, approximately 25% of reported COVID-positive cases in this spike were breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated students.
“We thought that vaccination was going to turn the tide dramatically, but I do think the Delta variant has challenged our ideas of how things were going to go,” said Beth Walsh, the Director of Student Health Services and the representative for Student Development on the COVID-19 Leadership team. “I’m still recommending the vaccine. I do think it is helping to keep people from being as sick, but it does seem that we are seeing breakthrough cases from time to time with the Delta variant.”
Paul Chelsen, the vice president for Student Development and COVID-19 Leadership Team member, also pointed toward student and employee fatigue with indoor masking protocols as another cause for the jump in positive cases. Chelsen encouraged students to continue to follow Wheaton’s COVID-19 regulations, which includes masking indoors and testing unvaccinated students twice a week in order to track the spread of the virus. Vaccinated individuals are also being tested as close contacts, while athletes are tested weekly per NCAA recommendations.
“Learning, friendship, music, arts, athletics, clubs, and organizations together make Wheaton a really significant learning and formative experience,” said Chelsen. “But those things are at risk if we put our individual choices about face coverings over what the college is asking people to do.”
Rynbrandt also offered encouragement to pandemic-fatigued students and reminded them to follow masking guidelines in order to achieve a return to normal. But he emphasized that COVID-19 regulations shouldn’t get in the way of developing Christian community.
“On a subject where people can have very different opinions, I think one thing that we can all agree on is that we hope this passes soon,” said Rynbrandt. “But as I observe students out my window, as I see them in the class that I’m teaching, as I talk with my [junior] daughters, I think that although there are mitigations, it’s not stopping God’s work here. Not the worship of him, the learning, or the relationships that are being built.”
Claire Green, a sophomore Spanish major, expressed her frustration at seeing the rising COVID numbers and what she sees as the tendency of her peers to not properly follow masking mandates.
“I think Wheaton leadership has worked really hard to maintain a safe campus and low COVID cases, as well put significant effort into preserving a sense of normalcy in campus life,” said Green. “So to me, it’s a little bit disappointing to see so many people just openly disregard basic masking and social distancing policies.”
According to the leadership team, no one single event prompted the latest spike. Chelsen noted that after tracking people by their assigned chapel seats, the leadership team observed that some students likely contracted COVID-19 from nearby students while attending chapel services. This prompted the targeted restrictions on indoor worship singing. Junior Business/Economics major Daniel Garza, who was in isolation at East Campus for 10 days in early September, also explained that through conversations with other isolated students, he noticed that many had attended an indoor, on-campus concert by Christian rapper KB on August 27.
Garza described his experience being separated from the rest of the campus and the unexpected comradery that comes with temporarily living with others in the same situation.
“The community here is pretty close,” said Garza. “We’ve been watching “The Great British Bake-Off” everyday, like an episode a day at night. Because we’ve been doing that, we’ve all been talking in these British accents to each other. So the community is actually really good. It makes it less lonely. When you meet someone else with COVID-19, it builds this weird bond, like this friendship bond that is kind of inseparable.”
In spite of the college’s more relaxed policies this year regarding social distancing and venturing outside the Wheaton “bubble,” Chelsen and other members of the leadership team recognize that the challenges the pandemic poses continues to be a test of patience and endurance for Wheaton students and faculty alike.
“The people on the COVID-19 team love students. We have no joy in putting a harness on parts of the college experience that we wouldn’t typically put a harness on,” said Chelsen. “But we’re still in an international pandemic, and it’s not business as usual. We’re trying to not prohibit as many activities as we can. But I just think it’s good to remember that as much as we all want this thing to be over, it’s not over yet.”