Students express concern amidst COVID-19 spike

The college experienced an increase in positive COVID-19 cases on Sept. 5, with 18 new, active cases on campus. The number of active cases have since decreased to three cases. All of the students who actively have COVID-19 are in isolation, according to the college’s COVID-19 website. 

“To be clear, in general we are doing amazingly well, and we have a very low infection rate (24 total positives out of 3,356),”  wrote President Hilary Link and the Allegheny College Health Agency’s Gabrielle Morrow in an email to the campus community on Sept. 10. 

On Tuesday, Sept. 8, ACHA acknowledged the spike in cases and offered an explanation for the increase in positive cases following the second round of COVID-19 testing.

“In our continuing efforts to keep you as informed as possible during these unprecedented times, we write with an update regarding the testing completed last week,” ACHA wrote. “We have now completed two rounds of testing the community for COVID-19. The first round identified seven positives; the second round, as we anticipated, identified 15 more. While the current number of 22 positives may seem high, contact tracing shows that this is a cluster situation and does not represent community spread.”

The students who tested positive or were exposed to individuals who tested positive were isolated and quarantined. According to the ACHA, in a precautionary measure, the agency also tested and quarantined students that they thought may have been in contact with these individuals.

“From a medical perspective, unless you are contacted by the Allegheny College Health Agency (ACHA), there is no reason for students, faculty, or staff to believe they have been exposed in any meaningful way to the virus,” ACHA clarified. “We understand that this is an anxiety-provoking time, but we have top-level medical professionals and epidemiologists guiding our testing and contact tracing procedures, and we remain very confident in their abilities to do so effectively.”

The recent COVID-19 spike has left the student body and faculty uncertain about the remainder of the fall semester and their safety on campus.

“I do not think that there is a black or white answer related to safety,” said Professor of Global Health Studies and Biology Becky Dawson. “I think that (we) need to acknowledge that this is an infectious agent and even if (you) are doing everything right — (you) are wearing a mask, keeping distance and washing (your) hands as much as possible — (you) may still contract COVID-19.”

Dawson is an epidemiologist and she works with the Pennsylvania Department of State to create a viable public health infrastructure across all of Pennsylvania’s counties. She also works with Erie News Now to provide COVID-19 updates from a public health perspective. 

The mitigation strategies put in place by the college will decrease disease spread but the residential aspect of the college will increase potential exposure, Dawson added. The number of positive cases appeared low for a college campus and she expected them to be higher than they were. 

“(COVID-19) is a really infectious disease and just like other infectious diseases that are airborne … even with the best strategies in place people are still going to get sick,” Dawson said. “There are things that (you) can do individually to keep (yourself) safe but there are other things that have to be done as a community type of activity.” 

Dawson recommends avoiding biting fingernails and touching the face, both of which are habits that may increase the risk of contracting COVID-19. In addition, frequently clean shared spaces, especially in the classroom, wear a mask and stay physically-distanced from others. She also recommends that students have honest conversations with people they are interested in spending time with and arrive at an understanding with one another about any decisions regarding safety. Also, Meadville residents, herself included, are impressed by the students, who appear to be taking the precautions very seriously, Dawson added.  

“Limit (your) social circle so that (you) have the interactions and community that (you) need while also recognizing that this is not the year to be a social butterfly or have multiple groups, which is going to be very hard for first-year students,” Dawson said. “(We) all need to take the first-years under (our) wings.”

Many students have expressed concerns regarding recent noncompliance with the COVID-19 protocols.

“When (we) first got here, the 24th, (we) had quarantine in our rooms and (we) could not see anyone and finally when (we) could, I saw a lot of people without masks on, which was shocking,” Alex Martin, ’24, said. “I thought that (we) all would be more cautious about (COVID-19) than (we) were.”

Martin believes that the spike may have been caused by the lack of students wearing masks, large group gatherings and parties, following the initial testing during move-in.

“I think that if there is another, bigger spike, the school will have to shut down and (students) will be sent home early and do all of (our) learning online,” Martin said. “Last year was hard for me in high school so I am sure that for college it will be even harder. I definitely do not want to go home.”

Going home early could potentially ruin an individual’s senior or even freshman experience, Martin added. 

“For me, college is a big thing because where I am from, it is a completely different mindset,” Martin said. “I wanted to come to college to get out and explore life and explore myself. When I found out that we had a spike in COVID cases, I was like, ‘oh, well if this continues we are going to be sent home.’”

Martin’s sentiments were shared by Flannery Pillion-Gardner, ’21. She requested that students be more cautious and follow the rules so the college can finish this semester on campus.

“The more willing (you) are to comply with things that are going on now, the more of a college experience (you) are going to be able to have,” Pillion-Gardner said. “If (you) continue to have parties, if (you) continue to go off campus for unnecessary things and if (you) continue to hang out without a mask, (you) are not going to have a college experience. Think about how it is for the seniors this year at the college, please, do not ruin it for (us).”

Seniors are using this semester to start their comprehensive senior projects required to graduate from the college. 

“A lot of (the seniors) are comping and really need to be on campus,” Pillion-Gardner said. “Please, think outside of (yourself).”

According to the college, the spike in positive cases occurred in a connected group of students and the cause of the spike came from off-campus travel. Speculation about the origin of the spike emerged from the campus community regarding a student who allegedly attended a party at Slippery Rock University in violation of the campus quarantine and the Gator Pledge. This individual was reported to the administration; however, the college has neither confirmed nor denied the accusations.

“Given the clustering and ongoing reported violations of the Gator Pledge, effective immediately, we will no longer give warnings to those students who are found to have violated the pledge,” Link announced in the Sept. 10 email. “While the overwhelming majority of students are taking the health guidelines seriously, unfortunately, there are already a few students who have disrespected these guidelines and violated the Gator Pledge; they are being held accountable through the student conduct process and being removed from campus.” 

There will be exceptions and not every report will lead to action unless the offense is in violation of the Gator Pledge, Link clarified. Students who are found guilty of violating the Gator Pledge will be sent home and must remotely continue their courses.

“It is unfortunate that a handful of students have negatively impacted the experience for the majority of students who have adhered to the guidelines in the strictest possible way,” Link added. “We must reiterate that there can be no gatherings, no parties, no visitors to the residence halls from off-campus or other behaviors that put the health and safety of the community at risk.” 

In addition to the new process for handling alleged Gator Pledge violations, the college has indefinitely extended on-campus quarantine.

“I think that (Link’s email) was an appropriate method to use but it puts students in a rough spot for people who only prepared for having resources until the 14th so things like going to Walmart and getting medicines have been put on hold,” Kendall Crum, ’23, said.

Crum also expressed concern regarding the impact that the extended quarantine will have on students’ mental state.

“(You) can not really see (your) friends as much as I would like to,” Crum said. “Emotionally, I think (the quarantine) has taken a toll on me as far as loneliness because I am confined to my room unless I have in-person classes. I think that is the hardest part for me.”

Students interested in joining a student-run support group, Speak Your Truth, are invited to attend the first meeting on Monday, Sept. 21, from 12:45-1:30 p.m. on Murray Lawn. 

“Speak Your Truth offers a safe space for students to speak without having to be concerned about possible negative consequences,” wrote the support group coordinator Sarah Mayer, ’22, in an Instagram post. “It is a space to express, to be heard and to grow.”

All students are invited to join the support group, but must maintain confidentiality and a respectful environment, Mayer added. 

“As a student, there are concerns and emotions that I am feeling about what is going on in our community right now so I started a very casual and informal community support group,” Mayer said. “We can be here for each other as students.”

In an update from the ACHA, on Sept. 14, the campus-wide quarantine has been lifted effective Sept. 15. Students are permitted to travel off campus, with the exception of restricted states, and they can resume off campus employment if this is their only source of income.

“(We) are happy to report that the campus quarantine process has been observed according to plans,” ACHA wrote. “The most recent test results have been better than expected, and students have been great at abiding by the Gator Pledge and following face covering and distancing policies. While we have had students test positive, we have had an unprecedented collaboration between the (ACHA), College leadership, faculty, and students resulting in less than 1% of our student population with COVID-19 at any time. The current positivity rate is 0.1%.” 

While campus-wide quarantine has been lifted, students must continue to obey the Gator Pledge and take safety precautions both on and off campus, ACHA clarified. 

According to Nicolle Long, ’22, she is worried for her family’s safety, especially after the spike in positive cases, because she lives in Meadville and has high-risk, immediate family members.

“I believe that if you cannot follow the rules, you just need to go home and be remote,” Long added. “I understand that you want to hang out with your friends, but this is not the time. We are in a pandemic and there are people’s families who are at risk.”

Students have been wearing their masks and socially distancing themselves, but with the recent increase in positive COVID-19 cases on campus, students need to remember that there are families who live in the surrounding areas and who are relying on the student body to be responsible, Long added.