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Semester Is Looking 'So Far, So Good' At Eureka College

Tim Shelley / Peoria Public Radio

At Eureka College, the fall semester is going "so far, so good" despite the new challenges presented by COVID-19.

That's the assessment of Dr. Jamel Wright, president of the small Woodford County liberal arts college.

"Things are actually going pretty well," she said. "We continue to have very stringent and rigorous protocols in place to try to ensure the safety of our students, and employees, and any guests, and everyone else who comes to campus, as well as the surrounding community."

Currently, Eureka College is reporting a 1% positivity rate since the pandemic began. In all, 21 people have reported a positive COVID-19 test, including students and staff. As of Monday, there were four active cases on campus and three off-campus. Woodford County has reported 368 cases and five deaths since the pandemic began.

"It is unlike anything any of us have ever seen," Wright said. "There's no playbook. There's nothing that we can walk to the shelf and dust off, or even contact other colleagues who have been in higher ed or other industries for many years. We're all learning this and figuring out the most safe way to do things as we go along."

Wright said Eureka College is working closely with the Woodford County Health Department, Carle Eureka Hospital, and the state.

Eureka College is offering in-person courses this fall, with some changes. Wright said being a smaller college actually offers some advantages in that regard.

"We've been able to leverage that by doing things like offering [residential] students single rooms," she said. "We've changed our cleaning service and cycle to all day. There's cleaning staff on campus who are cleaning common bathrooms and other commonly-shared areas throughout the day. We use these electrostatic disinfectant sprayers that hospitals and others use to eliminate germs within minutes."

She said larger classes of 30 students or more are held in larger event spaces like the auditorium to ensure social distancing. Campus dining services now offers an app to allow for carryout options. Face coverings are required on campus, including in class.

Wright said while it's a possibility a large outbreak could force Eureka College to shut down the campus, she's hoping to avoid that through isolation and quarantine procedures.

"We have isolation housing on campus for students who test positive," she said. "A third of our students are commuter students. So, if it's a commuter student or employee, they will isolate at home."

She said the college also could quarantine a floor or an entire residence hall if necessary.

"We will pull those levers before we ever got to the point of even going completely remote, and then if we needed to do that, we would that for up to a two-week period of time," Wright said. "But the only way we would actually send students back home would be under the recommendation of the state government or the federal government, if we do have to go to a complete shutdown like we did back in the spring."

Wright said Eureka College's new student enrollment is up 9 percent, and up 20 percent among first-year students.

"Our retention rate remains fairly stable," she said. "We're right around the same amount of students total that we were last fall. So in spite of the pandemic, we did see some increases in enrollment. And then that total number across campus remains the same from last fall to this fall."

She said the college's financial situation is solid enough to weather the COVID-19 pandemic without major adjustments. That's partially due to the college exceeding its fundraising goal last year.

"Eureka College remains financially stable. We remain in a good position to manage the pandemic that no one's ever seen or had to manage before," Wright said. "And we continue to try to give our students an in-person experience. And we'll continue to do that as long as we can ensure the safety of everyone in the community as best as we can."

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Tim Shelley is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.