Students concerned about campus safety; University “optimistic”

Marshall officials stated Monday through a university press release that current campus COVID-19 testing data justify optimism toward having “as normal a semester as possible,” but some students are concerned such a return to normalcy places them in “impossible scenarios.”

“We are currently at a positivity rate of just .2%, which is just outstanding,” Tracy Smith, director of environmental health and safety at Marshall, said, per the release.

As of Monday, 3,200 students and employees had been tested for coronavirus on campus, with many yet to receive results, the release states.

“We know we can expect some more positives as the test results continue to come in, but we are encouraged so far,” Smith said. “Our students are doing a great job being mindful of the guidelines and protocols, and if we can continue to watch out for one another as we have over the past few days, I think we can be optimistic about having as normal a semester as possible.”

Per the release, about 1,500 students currently occupy the residence halls on Marshall’s Huntington campus. In the middle of campus, Holderby Hall is reserved for housing students and staff members who test positive for coronavirus throughout the semester.

About 6,200 students across the university’s Huntington and South Charleston campuses are taking at least one face-to-face class this semester. Students also are attending classes through the university at the Mid-Ohio Valley Center and Teays Valley Center.

President Jerome A. Gilbert said university officials for months have worked on plans to ensure the highest levels of safety for students, staff and their community, and he hopes the fall semester will be productive and positive.

“I cannot stress enough how proud I am of the work our team has accomplished to prepare for this semester and how our students seem to be stepping up to the plate to cooperate,” Gilbert said. “I walked around campus several times today and was glad to see out students wearing masks and practicing social distancing. While it is premature to say we will be successful staying face-to-face in the long run, I can say that today has certainly exceeded my expectations and gives me hope for the fall semester, as well as for a football season.”

Despite data suggesting an initially low rate of coronavirus infections across campus and university statements outlining necessary safety precautions, some students remain concerned that colleges across the country may be endangering their most vulnerable students and staff.

Eric Dillon, a second-year Yeager scholar at Marshall, said initially he was hopeful about students returning to campus to complete their classes, but the past couple weeks upon that return have been troubling.

“I’m a bit lost,” Dillon said. “Many elements of school that I loved last semester have been taken away, and I’m really worried that if I get sick and go home, I’ll give it to my at-risk family members—In other words, I can’t go home now so that they can stay safe.”

Dillon said he is conflicted about staying on campus this semester, in part because many students are not wearing masks and appropriately following other safety guidelines.

“Just today, someone told me that it doesn’t matter if we wear masks or not,” he said.

Dillon said the university may have a responsibility to better protect the health and wellbeing of its students and staff by more strictly enforcing safety guidelines.

“All summer long, Marshall has sent emails about how they are going to enforce policies for the better of our health,” he said. “Where are the wipes and hand sanitizers that are supposed to be in every classroom? Given what I’m seeing on campus, I’m not sure if enough action is being taken. The university needs to take a stance that is consistent with its words: are they going to be strict about COVID-19 prevention, or are they going to be lenient and allow students to improperly wear masks and throw massive parties all week long? The actions of the university will speak much louder than its words.”

Marshall student Heather Hodge said she also is concerned about the dangers tied to thousands of students returning to college campuses amid an ongoing deadly pandemic.

Hodge said she and her partner, a university employee, are raising a child in the third-grade, who they have enrolled in virtual schooling in Cabell County. She said she feels lucky to be capable of completing her classes virtually, but she and her family still are being forced into a position with seemingly no reasonable solution.

“I feel lucky, but I am still faced with some impossible scenarios,” Hodge said. “Our scenario involves navigating and avoiding the risks of possible COVID infection in our family and finding a way to make our conflicting schedules work. More respect should be given to our situation.”

Douglas Harding can be contacted at [email protected].