Campus Temperature Check: Pandemic affects all aspects of life for FHSU students, faculty and staff

BY JOHN CARTER JR

With coronavirus changing the way we engage in our daily lives and traverse the world, a new set of challenges arrived for students upon their return to Fort Hays State University in the fall. While FHSU had many protocols in place to protect everyone on campus, students and faculty have been suffering the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many FHSU students are more stressed than in previous semesters and have had to adjust to the “new normal” of campus life amid a pandemic.

FHSU Senior Sadie Miller expressed her frustrations about on-campus living. She said while things were initially calm in her dorm with residents following CDC guidelines – keeping COVID cases in her dorm relatively low – she says that attitude seems to have changed.

“Now, I always see huge groups of people without masks or social distancing, even as cases of COVID have gone up on campus as a result of that behavior,” Miller said. “Even though I’m not necessarily worried about my own health, I am worried about the health of others, and I’m also worried about being sent home again if COVID gets out of control on campus. So, it’s frustrating to see people behaving so recklessly.” 

Miller also expressed concern about how common areas in the residence halls are being taken care of, saying with around 50 people sharing a communal bathroom the soap and paper towels aren’t always replaced on-time.

“Clearly, this is unsafe in a pandemic,” Miller said. “Luckily my roommate and I are on the same page with COVID and we both follow the guidelines to be as safe as possible, but we still have to use common spaces that aren’t so safe. If I was any more concerned about the coronavirus, I don’t know if I could stand to live on campus.”

Responding to safety concerns on campus, FHSU Chief Communications Officer, Scott Cason, said the number one priority of FHSU, President Mason, the Executive Leadership Team and the Critical Incident Policy Group (CIPG) is the safety and wellbeing of employees, students and visitors. He said that is why the university quickly pivoted to remote operations in March and used the summer to plan for the best and safest way to maintain that priority upon reopening in the fall.

“What we have sought from day-one is a balance between health, safety and the best student experience we can offer,” Cason said. “Under the three-phase plan we introduced over the summer, we decided to provide shortened eight-week classes and more hybrid courses as a way to mitigate the spread of the virus. After a rough couple of weeks in August, we have settled into following health and safety protocols that appear to be working.”

Cason said the CIPG meets at least three times a week to continually reassess whether FHSU is still adhering to protocols, ongoing surveillance testing, and its quarantine and isolation programs.

“We still don’t know where this pandemic will take us, so we are ready again to pivot if necessary,” he said, 

One of the biggest adjustments students are facing is the limited engagement they share with other students through in-person or on-campus activities. With many classes being offered as hybrid or total online (TOL), students don’t get as many opportunities to interact with each other.

“My campus life has been very limited,” FHSU graduate student, Socorro Vega said. “All my courses are TOL courses and I have been working remotely – going in occasionally into my office for work. I have avoided going to on-campus events due to the current pandemic.”

Lily Bledose, a senior at FHSU, has also had limited experience with other individuals, only seeing other students at her on-campus job.

“I’ve been working my on-campus job so I see a few people and activities happening but I have very little involvement with campus life other than that,” Bledsoe said.

Miller expressed similar sentiments concerning interacting with people saying this semester has been completely different than any other semester she has had before. 

“Before COVID, I was almost never in my room because I was always with my friends, going out somewhere, or at work. I spent almost all of my time being social,” Miller said. “But this semester it’s been difficult to see my friends because of COVID, there aren’t really any events or places to go, my work has moved online, and the only place I can be without a mask is my own room. So now, all I do is go to class and then back to my room, which is a huge change for me.”

FHSU Senior Michelle Barb also doesn’t get too much interaction with other students. She said her only campus life experience comes from her time in hybrid or TOL classes. Barb’s diminished interaction with fellow Fort Hays students is just one of the difficulties with the coronavirus related shifts on campus.

Bledsoe noticed the decreased amount of in-person interaction and how it affects her ability to succeed. 

“It’s much more online and that has been difficult when it comes to getting the teacher-student interaction I need,” Bledsoe said. “I also feel like there is a lack of social connection because I don’t attend any events on campus.”

While the on-campus experience has certainly changed for students, Cason said not to expect a full return to “normal” next semester; however, he said the university is moving back in the right direction. 

“I don’t think we can predict a full return to normalcy next semester. Even when approved, a coronavirus vaccine will have to be produced and distributed first to priority recipients (healthcare providers and those most at risk),” Cason said. “I think we are inching towards normalcy right now. CIPG is reviewing and approving more campus event plans. And we plan to have winter sports back in action in November.”

Some students while disappointed in the current situation remain positive and understanding. 

“Unfortunately, my college experience has shifted greatly. I’m no longer on campus as much as I had hoped for my last year but I understand the gravity of the situation. Classes also don’t meet as much with ZOOM but I believe we are all trying our best.” Vega said.

Sophomore James Underwood said he has found the main difference with courses during the pandemic is the number of personal interactions with instructors.

“Focus is on ZOOM and personal meetings with teachers are minimal, the classes are mainly online,” Underwood said. 

This new format for classes has had students in positions for major adjustments to their college experience.

Vega said challenges as a Graduate Teaching Assistant and the adjustments for this semester have been around the amount of communication he has with students and faculty. Vega now relies on email more heavily when he used to be able to walk down the hall to ask a professor a question.

“As a GTA, I don’t get to interact with undergrad students as often – I believe it’s much easier to ask questions in person as opposed to having to wait for a response back in an email,” Vega said. “In addition to this, it’s much more difficult to really know how students are doing unless they reach out. Being a GTA on campus, I could easily ask a student about their progress and know immediately. Other duties include research and trips to Kansas City, which have been put on hold.”

Bledsoe expressed uncertainty in her current college experience 

“It’s made it much more stressful because everything could change at any second and I feel like we might be hung out to dry in our programs,” Bledose said. 

Miller expresses the impacts COVID-19 has had on her life and progress. Her last semester at FHSU was supposed to be Spring 2019; however, due to a lack of computing resources at home, she wasn’t able to finish the semester and is back on campus this fall.

“So, COVID has already affected my undergraduate experience quite a bit. The fact that I am having to redo my last semester is financially stressful, and the thought that I could get sent home again this semester is even more stressful,” Miller said, “On top of this stress, I have been struggling to keep up with my classes that are online, and I have been struggling to focus in my in-person classes because my allergies, combined with my mask, are very distracting.  Overall, COVID has affected my experience as an undergraduate student pretty severely, but it is what it is.”

There have been a plethora of tragedies and misfortunes concerning coronavirus and safety precautions have had a major role in the mitigation of the virus. However, one word that has dominated COVID-19 conversations has been “mask.” Students mark this as one of the most important parts of their safety and mitigation practices concerning the virus.

Vega makes sure he follows recommended health guidelines to stay healthy and urges others on campus to wear their mask. 

“Always wear a mask on campus, even if it’s walking in between buildings,” Vega said. “I make sure to have sanitizer in my office and in my vehicle. I also avoid going to public facilities like the Union, Library, or even restrooms.”

Comments concerning personal hygiene and masks were common among students. Underwood said his hopes for next semester surrounded his concern over the standards being upheld. 

“Meeting with teachers should be more openly available and the masks are not controlled very well so it should be enforced or removed,” he said,

While the fall 2020 semester has not been “normal”, for Vega, Barb and Bledsoe, remaining hopeful for positive change is all they can do.

“I am very hopeful of changes – at the very least some classes moving back to on campus. I do think the possibility of this is low given the rise in cases, but still hoping for the best,” Vega said.

“I am hopeful for ‘good’ changes but I’m not expecting anything to happen too quickly,” Barb said. 

“I’m hoping we get more on-campus opportunities next semester, but I have a feeling COVID will play a large part of our lives for a while,” Bledsoe said.

Cason said campus resources such as the Kelly Center are there to help students combat feelings of isolation and other difficulties brought on by the pandemic.  

“This is a very serious concern and the staff and resources of the Kelly Center are available to help us get through the challenging emotional times brought on by the pandemic,” he said. “I would encourage students who are struggling to take advantage of these services. One of the most effective ways to deal with an emotional challenge like this is to reach out and offer to help somebody else.”

Students aren’t the only members of campus dealing with difficulties amid the pandemic. Cason was recently able to speak to a member of his team in person for the first time since March. Cason also mentioned services FHSU is providing to help serve the campus community. 

“The FHSU Foundation held a drive-up cinnamon roll give away at Gross Memorial Coliseum,” he said. “I serve on the Tiger Gold on Friday steering committee, and we are working on a November event on the Quad that we hope will bring folks out to celebrate our Tiger Pride. I think you will see more opportunities for all of us to begin connecting more in November.”

Coming from various opinions, the status quo of Fort Hays State University seems to be one of a challenging or daunting nature. It is a complete change from previous years in which COVID-19 restrictions were not of concern and where a global pandemic was not plaguing the lives of individuals in a similar fashion across the globe. While students are doing what they can to mitigate their potential exposure to the virus, only time will tell what will happen next in the lives of students on campus.

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