Winona State administrators talk effects of COVID-19

McKenna Scherer, Editor-in-Chief

Winona State University held its last university-wide forum of the semester on Nov. 18 from 2 to 3:30 p.m. to discuss the effects of COVID-19 on campus.

The forum was led by Winona State’s vice president of finance, Scott Ellinghuysen, alongside several other administrative leaders via Zoom.

President Scott Olson was attending the Minnesota Board of Trustees meeting at the time but joined the online meeting later on.

Connie Kamara, Director of Winona State’s Health Services, discussed Winona State’s “steady but slow increase” in COVID cases.

The city of Winona has over 2,000 COVID cases total, with about 800 of those having occurred within the last 18 days prior to Nov. 18’s forum, Kamara said.

“We are doubling [COVID] numbers and we are breaking records, and that’s throughout the state, throughout the region,” Kamara said.

Kamara also shared surrounding cities’ COVID situations, including how Rochester and Mankato are seeing some of the highest rates of increase in COVID cases.

According to Kamara’s PowerPoint slides in the forum, several cities in Minnesota are in the top 20 nationwide for current COVID outbreaks, including Fergus Falls and St. Cloud.

Rochester, Mankato and Faribault-Northfield are also being watched as potential COVID-hotspots, Kamara said.

Kamara also discussed the shortage of hospital staff and ICU beds in the area with ICU bed availability “down to single digits.”

“It’s a very grave situation, very serious,” Kamara said. “We’re on a road we don’t want to be on, but we’re still on the road and we’re going to make it.”

Kamara also discussed things that faculty, staff and students should be doing to help contain spread of COVID, especially before winter and any Thanksgiving travel. One topic Kamara discussed was flu shots.

The university held two flu shot events on campus on Nov. 19 and Nov. 23 in Kryzsko Commons to encourage those on campus to get their shots before Thanksgiving break.

“Other things you can be doing is sleeping well, eating well, all those things that I know are hard to do during finals,” Kamara said. “But those are really important to keep your immune system up. Take care of yourself.”

Finals week for Winona State students will occur Dec. 7 through Dec. 10 after Thanksgiving break, but the university had been urging students to stay on campus for Thanksgiving break if they were going to have face-to-face classes after break or would be on campus.

The university also urged students to remain home, or wherever they travel to, if they were leaving Winona during break.

Kamara also shared graphics that displayed “low risk” activities during the pandemic are no longer considered low risk.

“What we had originally thought was lower risk has now, because of the sheer numbers [of COVID cases], really moved up to moderate risk,” Kamara said. “The only thing that’s truly low risk at this time is virtual.”

Questions were solicited from faculty, staff and students through email prior to Nov. 18 to be answered during the forum as well.

The first question, submitted anonymously, asked if they had to quarantine while waiting for COVID test results if they were not showing symptoms and had not been exposed, since they did not want to miss in-person work and school.

Kamara said if people don’t quarantine after getting tested and receiving their results, getting a negative result would not matter much and urged people to “lay as low as possible” while waiting for their test results.

“If you are not trying to do as much of a quarantine as you can, that negative result isn’t going to mean much,” Kamara said. “You could’ve been exposed that next hour you went and had coffee with somebody [or] you could’ve been exposed that next night when you went and had dinner with a few people.”

The university provides on-campus COVID testing for those who are showing COVID symptoms.

Asymptomatic people can get tested at the Minnesota Department of Health site at the Winona Mall by appointment or walk-in. Their results are typically delivered within 24-48 hours, according to Kamara.

At the beginning of the forum, Ellinghuysen addressed Governor Walz’s press conference occurring at 6 p.m. that evening and how it may affect Winona State’s COVID situation further.

“There’s been some rumors he [Governor Walz] is going to close some bars and restaurants, fitness facilities, things like that, so it remains to be seen what he’s going to announce tonight,” Ellinghuysen said.

Ellinghuysen also discussed the possibility of COVID vaccines becoming available at the start of the forum.

“I think it’s important to note that it’s a long road for those vaccines yet,” Ellinghuysen said. “I think you’re probably looking at months away for any kind of vaccine plan that would get at a large swatch of the population, but it does look promising. Hopefully, maybe there’s a light at the end of this tunnel.”

Darrell Newton, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Winona State, said most courses will move fully online after Thanksgiving break on Monday, Nov. 30, and will stay online through the end of finals.

However, Newton said courses with “necessary in-person” activities could still meet face-to-face after Thanksgiving break, including labs, field experiences, clinicals, performances and practicums, as to “have the best possible learning experience.”

Residence halls and on-campus facilities will remain open and operating after Thanksgiving break, Newton said.

Newton also said the university expects most courses to remain online during the spring semester too.

“Teaching in-person should only be done if necessary,” Newton said. “We’re trying to keep contagion low, trying to save some lives, trying to help folks stay well.”

Another Q&A was answered by Denise McDowell, Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Life at Winona State, regarding the possibility for another campus-wide self-imposed quarantine when the spring semester begins.

McDowell said people returning to campus after winter break should consider a two-week quarantine and the campus will include a “slow roll” into the Spring 2021 semester, with more details being released in the near future.

Winona State recently announced its decision to cancel Spring Break due to COVID concerns as well, the break originally planned for March 8 through March 12.

In place of the five-day break, the university has implemented three “non-class days” throughout the beginning of the spring semester.

Those “non-class days” will be on Feb. 10, March 9 and March 31.

However, student workers may still be required to work on those days.

Ellinghuysen said students should work with their supervisors and departments to figure out if they will have to work on those “non-class days” since the campus will still be operating.

The forum also addressed the university’s enrollment being affected by COVID.

According to the presentation, spring enrollment is down 10% overall with a 13% decline in undergraduates, but up nearly 35% in graduate enrollment.

That graduate enrollment percentage for the spring is staggering in comparison to other Minnesota State universities, Winona State being the only one seeing an increase.

Overall, the four-year Minnesota State universities are seeing a nearly 17% decline in spring undergraduate enrollment and around a 1% decline in spring graduate enrollment, Winona State performing better than that average.

However, Denise McDowell said more students have left the residence halls this semester than in previous years.

McDowell said 161 students have left the residence halls so far this semester, but not necessarily unenrolling in classes.

About 53 students left the residence halls the week prior to the forum, which was also around the time Winona State announced its two-week self-imposed quarantine prior to Thanksgiving break.

“There’s still some of them [students who left the halls] registered for classes, but we did notice an unusual uptick [of students leaving the halls] in the last week when we announced we were going into this soft quarantine [and] that some classes would not be coming back face-to-face after the Thanksgiving break,” McDowell said.

McDowell said she and Residence Hall Director Paula Scheevel discussed how comparing this semester to previous ones is “like comparing apples to oranges.”

“If we we’re going to do an apple-to-orange comparison, what we would learn is that on average, by the 12 week last year and in previous years, about nine students per week may be leaving the residence halls,” McDowell said. “This year, about 13 students per week on average are leaving our residence halls.”

McDowell also said since the first day of fall classes through Nov. 18, 160 students have left campus housing.

As of Nov. 18, four students in the Tau Center residence hall were in isolation and nine other students in university housing were quarantining.

The university has received 75 new student housing applications for the spring semester but 150 students currently in on-campus housing would not be returning to university housing in the spring, McDowell said.

Near the end of the forum, questions on whether or not Winona State would offer winter athletics were addressed.

Winona State President Scott Olson entered the forum around that time and said the university has planned to offer winter sports, given Governor Walz does not impose restrictions on them.

“There are some rumors going on on the internet right now that the restrictions the Governor’s going to impose tonight will not affect college sports,” Olson said. “Certainly, if the trend line

keeps heading the way it is [regarding COVID cases], we can image that either he might impose something or we ourselves might say, “this is not safe enough.””

Governor Walz did announce new COVID restrictions for the state would occur for four weeks beginning Friday, Dec. 18, including pausing adult and youth sports, but exempting college and pro sports from that pause.

The Nov. 18 forum was the last planned forum of the 2020 school year, the next forum currently scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 at 2 p.m.