© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

Experts Field Lingering COVID-19 Questions From ISU Faculty, Staff As New Semester Arrives

Panelists on a webinar
Panelists with expertise in medicine, nursing, public health, infectious diseases, and environmental health and safety discussed COVID-19 transmission, contact tracing, and strategies to mitigate risks in classrooms and other settings.

Illinois State University faculty and staff asked public health experts their lingering COVID-19 questions during a live webinar Friday on the eve of the fall semester.

The fall term begins Monday. Most classes will be online, with some in-person and hybrid courses. ISU's provost said this week that 72% of undergraduates and 58% of graduate students will be taking all their classes online.

Students, faculty and staff will be required to wear face coverings in all common indoor spaces, including classrooms and offices, and outdoor settings where maintaining six feet social distancing may be difficult.

Instructors can offer individuals one disposable mask to wear in case a student forgets to bring one to class. However, students who refuse to comply will be instructed to leave the building and instructors can follow up with the student via email to remind them of school policies. Students will face disciplinary actions for repeated non-compliance. Disposable face coverings can be picked up at the main office of each department or school.

“A face covering isn’t a substitute for physical distancing, so it’s really a face covering and six-foot physical distancing,” said Jackie Lanier, an associate professor in ISU's Department of Health Sciences.

Testing and tracing

All ISU students were strongly encouraged—but not required—to be tested before arriving on campus and to supply their test results to the university.

Symptomatic students can get tested at Student Health Services. ISU also plans to roll out a surveillance testing program for students without symptoms, at a cost of up to $3.3 million for the next five months. Provost Aondover Tarhule told WGLT last week the goal is to test 3% of the student population on a regular basis.

Students living on-campus are required to participate in surveillance testing as part of their housing contract, while students living off-campus are only encouraged to, said Dr. Katie Eichinger, medical director at Student Health Services.

Faculty and staff are encouraged to use the testing site at the Interstate Center in Bloomington, while employees who are symptomatic shouldn't come to campus at all.

If students or staff have been around someone who has symptoms or tests positive, they will be identified as a close contact, told to do a 14-day quarantine, and will be contacted by the McLean County Health Department (MCHD) for next steps. The county's Board of Health will consider an agreement with ISU for MCHD contact tracing at its Aug. 19 meeting.

Close contacts will not be able to “test out” of quarantine and are recommended to stay in contact with the health department through the process, said Melissa Jarvill, assistant professor in ISU's Mennonite College of Nursing.

"The last measure we want to put in place is to close school."

“Once you’ve been identified as a close contact to somebody who’s had COVID, you will be asked to quarantine for 14 days, even if you test negative every day for those 14 days," she said.

She also suggested students repeatedly exposed to someone they're living with to be tested immediately. Those with limited exposure are encouraged to wait five to seven days before being tested.

“It is possible to test too soon,” Jarvill said. “We don’t have that virus ramped up yet to be detectable where we need it to be detectable. I love that people are wanting to be proactive and wanting to run out and get tested, but we often have to say it’s a little too soon, let’s give it five to seven days, and again if it’s negative, and you are close contact, you’re still in quarantine for 14 days."

Students who test positive are encouraged to go back to their permanent homes to quarantine. Students living in on-campus housing who are unable to return home will be provided a temporary room for isolation or quarantine. Event Management, Dining, and Hospitality will provide students three meals a day.

So what would have to happen for ISU or other campuses to shut down more fully?

Melissa Graven, communicable disease supervisor at MCHD, said factors including the number of case clusters or outbreaks and testing-positivity rates in comparison to the rest of the community will determine if schools like ISU are safe to remain open.

Graven said it takes the collaboration of the ISU community, MCHD, and Illinois Department of Public Health to conduct classes safely.

“The last effort we want to do, or the last measure we want to put in place, is to close school,” Graven said.

Transmission on surfaces

Some people have expressed concerns about other ways to contract COVID-19.

Ben Sadd, an associate professor of infectious disease ecology, said it's been shown to spread through respiratory droplets and aerosols. Another common route of transmission is touching surfaces contaminated with the virus, then touching the face. However, softer surfaces like clothes are least likely to aid transmission.

“While the possibility exists of transmissions on clothes, experts do suggest that transmission on soft surfaces will be even more restricted than from frequently-touched hard surfaces,” Sadd said.

Respiratory droplets and aerosols that spread the virus are likely to hang around in rooms with poor ventilation, but Sadd said heating, ventilation and cooling systems have been updated. He still encouraged individuals to wear face coverings and social distance.

As for high-traffic areas like bathrooms, Sadd said research has shown that particles from flushing toilets do not aid transmission.

“Even if there is an infected virus in those cases, washing hands in bathrooms and other measures will be effective in those situations,” Sadd said.

Fitness center, computer labs

The Student Fitness Center will limit capacity. Individuals will have one hour to exercise followed by a 30-minute shutdown for staff to deep clean the facility, including locker rooms. Exercise equipment will be spaced out six feet and open areas will be marked six feet for social distance workouts.

Cleaning supplies will be provided for pre and posts workouts for all equipment and workout areas and sharable equipment such as dumbbells and medicine balls will be removed. All team sports are prohibited.

Sanitation wipes will be provided in all computer labs, and all work stations will be eliminated to promote physical distancing. 

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

Darnysha Mitchell is an Illinois State University student and reporting and social media intern at WGLT.