Bethel College will start courses mostly online, has suspended fall sports practices and asked students who have yet to come to campus to hold off. The actions followed 43 students and seven staff members testing positive for COVID-19 as part of the school’s mandatory testing as it prepared for the first day of classes on Aug. 19.
Bethel President Jon Gering said at an Aug. 17 press conference that he expected some positive tests as part of mandatory, school-wide testing. However, the results were surprising to not only him but students as well.
“The students have been surprised,” he said. “The majority are asymptomatic. A few exhibited mild symptoms, loss of taste, smell.”
The school has so far conducted 493 tests. The first round of testing for 216 early returners yielded four positive cases.
A second test, conducted Aug. 13-14, yielded 46 positive cases.
Neither Gering nor Harvey County Health Department Director Lynnette Redington had an answer for why the second group of tests had such a high number of positive cases.
Gering did say students were being tested immediately when they returned to campus, and the positive test results were split about evenly between athletes and non-athletes. He didn’t have a break down of how many positive results were coming from students returning from out of state.
The amount of cases has put the school in Code Orange (High Risk) of its COVID-19 plan, meaning there’s a state of unidentified community spread of COVID-19 on campus, according to the plan.
As part of the stage, many college classes will be conducted online.
Gering said most classes would be conducted remotely, but there was some professor discretion involved.
“By and large, what we’re going to see is we’ll start the semester online,” he said.
Students are not to leave campus for unessential reasons, and outside guests will not be allowed into campus buildings.
“We’re trying to form the proverbial bubble, if you will,” Gering said. “Any movement in and out on campus, we want to remove that as much as possible.”
Those on campus would continue to be required to wear masks, space six feet apart, have daily temperature checks and chart their health.
The next part of the plan (Severe Risk) would be triggered when the school’s cases surpass its ability to isolate and quarantine those infected.
Gering said right now the school has 45 slots to provide isolation and quarantine. Those, he explained later, were groups of rooms separated from others.
“Based on the numbers I gave you, you see we came pretty close,” he said.
Gering said international students were quarantined when they returned to campus and are leaving their quarantine, opening up space.
He said some of the cases are local, and the students have been able to quarantine at their families’ homes. And other positives involve those not living on campus.
“We have just enough at this point,” Gering said.
If the school would exceed its ability to quarantine, all classes would be moved remotely, and the school would work to minimize the number of students on campus.
The plan also has a Code Grey phase, which details that the campus can be shut down should the county health department or Kansas Department of Health and Environment recommend it.
Gering said that the college would have to be adaptable moving forward and noted the college closed three times during the 1918 influenza epidemic, that cases may go in waves, and the school was prepared.
Contact tracing continues, and Redington said the health department is working to notify any local close contacts to those infected.
Gering said while he wasn’t happy that students had cases, he was glad the school knew the prevalence of COVID-19 in its community.
“We’re pleased we did the testing,” he said.