Maria Stevens, a sophomore at the University of Nevada, Reno, was scared when she tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19 on Oct. 6.
As she filled out her reporting form, she thought about the other students in her in-person lab class, the time she spent at the E. L. Weigand Fitness Center and all the other places she visited on campus in the days prior to her test.
She came into contact with lots of people in a short time. Any of them could have passed the virus on to her; she could have given it to some of them.
“It’s scary because you don’t know who in your life is positive,” said Stevens, who did not want her real name used for this story. “You have no idea where you got it. You can’t blame anyone or trace the source per se.”
The same day Stevens received her test results, the university announced the closure of the E.L. Wiegand Fitness Center, where she and more than 60 other students who had tested positive reported spending time. The order got an immediate pushback: students started a Change.org petition to reopen the gym. It gathered more than 4,000 signatures within days.
It was a futile effort; there was worse news to come.
Students won’t return after Thanksgiving
UNR had become an epicenter of a virus outbreak in which one-in-nine of Washoe County cases have been associated with the university community and the 18 to 34 age range is reportedly the highest age group of the new cases.
By Oct. 9, greater restrictions were announced, including: students being asked not to return to campus after Thanksgiving break and the news that UNR will be converting to fully-virtual instruction thereafter; the start of 2021’s spring semester a week later than usual and the cancellation of traditional spring break; and the resumption of football games this fall, but without spectators in the stands.
Off-campus gatherings spread virus
The university had more than 100 students test positive for the virus each week between Sept. 14 and Oct. 2. UNR has had 519 students test positive between Aug. 31 and Oct. 9, as compared with just 158 students at the seven other Nevada higher education campuses combined, including the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, according to the Nevada System of Higher Education COVID-19 dashboard.
Washoe County officials have said recent spikes in local cases have been traced to in-home gatherings, including off-campus parties that include UNR students. On campus, the Wiegand Center was seen as a possible source of contagion.
Stevens, who entered quarantine after her positive test, said when she used the gym, she often noticed people not cleaning equipment after using it and saw too many people gathering in one place. She sees similar things around campus, including in her in-person lab class.
“[There] are restrictions and cleaning procedures, but I feel like they still are not as strict as they could be,” Stevens said. “Occasionally, there is a lot of mingling around within these in-person classes.”
Lab classes meet for 90 minutes or longer
Stevens’ lab class had 12 to 15 people and they met for an hour and a half. Other in-person courses at UNR can range from an hour to 2 hours.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated guidelines airborne transition is a possible, although not primary, way to spread the virus. Airborne transition occurs when tiny particles, usually after talking, breathing heavily or singing, remain in the air for long periods and circulate within enclosed spaces. That makes gyms and classes where students are in rooms for longer periods potential super-spreader sites.
Students have mixed reactions to restrictions.
“I’m happy about (spring break moved to the start of spring semester),” said Tania Varela, a sophomore. “Fewer people will be partying and it will reduce the spread of the virus.”
Adam Ferati, a senior, was less enthused. “It sucks,” he said. “We need (the break) in the middle of the semester, not an extra week of winter break. Spring break at the beginning of the semester would mean an uninterrupted semester that would prove a very tiring end.”
Freshman Tosin Diyan said the new schedule makes no sense. “It’s crazy,” she said. “Covid really messed up my spring break plans. If it was normal time, l would have gone on a trip with my friends.”
Jordan Howard, another freshman, said the idea of extending winter break and calling it spring is stupid. “They should have put it at the end of the semester,” he said.
Some pupils welcome virtual classes
Several students said they saw a move to full distance learning coming.
“I had a feeling this would happen sooner or later,” said Dahlia Jones, a junior. “It is unnecessary and upsetting they are trying to this again in the spring. Spring should just be remote.”
Freshman Kaydah Johnson said she foresees problems because students will be far removed from university resources. “I’m fine with school being online but, I feel bad for the students who are in the (Residence) Halls,” she said. “How are they supposed to use certain resources when they won’t be living here?”
Others like navigating classes from home. “Going online gives you the flexibility to get work done,” Simranjit Samra said. “So, I’m happy they’re going for it.”
Other students were critical about the university’s response to handling COVID-19 cases on campus.
Those exposed want more information
Elizabeth Violago, Steven’s lab partner, was upset her professor did not announce to the class that one of their classmates tested positive. She only knew she was in close contact with someone who tested positive because Stevens told her.
“I just can’t believe they didn’t tell anyone or make any announcements,” Violago said. “Professors aren’t transparent about this. How many other people tested positive around us and we never knew?”
According to the University COVID-19 update page, if a student who tested positive was present in class during a potentially infectious period, the university can inform students who have been in contact with that person.
“A close contact definition is someone who spent more than 15 minutes and less than 6-feet apart, said Dr. Cheryl Hug-English, the Student Health Center medical director. She noted that in-person classes are required to be socially-distanced.
“So, in most circumstances, if someone were to test positive in a class or a lab, the risk of someone else getting it in that environment is small.”
University creates online ‘dashboard’
Hug-English said professors could notify the lab partners and the class if someone tested positive for COVID. However, she said, it is an individual responsibility for everyone to follow COVID-19 guidelines to help reduce the spread of the virus.
“The campus is doing all that we can to help mitigate the spread of this virus,” Hug-English said. “We’ve had good compliance with our students on campus. These additional steps will further decrease the number of cases that we see.”
The university maintains its own dashboard about virus incidences on campus which is scheduled to be updated weekly.