During a Jan. 26 emergency Zoom meeting, which quickly reached its 1,000-participant capacity, Southern President David Smith shared administration’s concerns that in-person classes may be threatened if students and employees fail to follow COVID-19 protocols.
“Yesterday morning, it became clear to me that our goal of finishing this semester together in-person is in serious jeopardy,” Smith said to the audience of both students and employees. “… Immediate action is absolutely necessary. Whether or not we reach this goal of staying on campus will depend on each of you, students and employees of the university.”
As of Feb. 1, Southern has reported 26 active cases and 48 resolved cases for the Winter 2021 semester — a significant increase from the fall semester. Although Smith attributed parts of these numbers to the holiday break and the school’s increased COVID-19 testing efforts, he also emphasized students’ lack of cooperation as a reason for the boost.
“Currently, most virus transmissions are occurring on campus itself, and more people are getting [the virus] more quickly than was the case last semester,” Smith said. “… Our biggest challenge right now — one that must be addressed — is noncompliance.”
According to Smith, a growing number of students are not wearing masks or social distancing, while others are withholding information for contact tracing. In addition, Smith said some faculty members have also failed to record classroom seating placements.
Smith called for students and employees to take COVID-19 seriously and carefully follow all guidelines set forth by the university.
“University Health Center personnel and I are optimistic that we can finish this semester well if we do what is expected of us,” Smith said. “So, I want to challenge you to comply with all COVID-19 protocols. … Do all that you can to stay well and help prevent the spread of the virus on our campus. We have good reason to believe that we have about one week to turn around our current behavior.”
Sophomore English major Ronn Agustin attended the emergency meeting and said he felt it was important but also alarming.
“It was a little bit concerning, especially when he mentioned that we had a week to turn it around,” Agustin said. “I just wasn’t sure if one week would be enough of a notice for us to change things.”
With a one week time frame to turn the case count around, sophomore biology biomedical major Benjamin Ziesmer said the meeting motivated him to take guidelines more seriously.
“I decided to do a better job of obeying the rules and try to encourage other people to do the same,” Ziesmer said. “… I really don’t want to go home because I know it [would] just be horrible for my grades [and] my mental health.”
Many students believe that another way to reduce cases is by revising the attendance policy. Senior social work major Richard Thomas believes case numbers would decrease if classes weren’t tied to grades.
“Last semester, half or more than half, of all my classes chose to attend online,” Thomas said. “If they [Southern] want to drop the COVID numbers, that would be a great way to do it.”
Still, other students like junior English and professional writing major Aaron Mumu said that while the attendance policy may not significantly impact the case numbers, it reflects the university’s level of seriousness on the issue.
“It sends a message to the students that the admins aren’t taking COVID as seriously as they could be,” Mumu said. “Especially since we did really well with our COVID numbers last semester. So why change [the attendance policy] when we’re just starting to distribute the vaccine?”
In a separate interview with the Accent, President Smith said that if evidence suggests that the recent clarification of the attendance policy and reintegration of enrichment credits negatively affect the number of COVID-19 cases on campus, administration would consider withdrawing those policies for the semester.
“If it turns out that the new approach to attendance in the classroom is either being misused by faculty or is leading to greater problems and our handling of COVID-19, then we will pull it back,” Smith said. “… At this point, there’s no evidence that that particular change has anything to do with a COVID-19 problem on campus.”
The attendance policy says any student who is ill, has been exposed to a COVID-positive case in the last 14 days or is showing any coronavirus symptoms should not attend face-to-face classes. In addition, an option has been made available for students to get enrichment credits online.
“What I’d like for [students] to know is we take their safety very seriously, as we do the safety of our own employees,” Smith said “We do believe we can make it to the end of this semester, live in person. And we are committed to doing everything we can to accomplish that.”
On Monday, Feb. 1, administration invited students to attend a virtual Town Hall meeting scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 3, at 6 p.m. The Town Hall meeting will clarify statements made in last week’s emergency Zoom session and answer students’ questions, which can be submitted at southern.edu/question.