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Mobile is in the middle of a COVID surge and South Alabama is feeling the effects.
The university COVID dashboard shows 263 total cases since Aug. 7 among staff and students. This time last year, there were 41 total cases detected by the Student Health Center, demonstrating the severity of this surge. Mobile county itself had a total of 498 new cases this last week alone, according to data on Mobile County Department of Public Health. Students can get tested for COVID at the health center but the only way for professors and students to be made aware of a positive case in class is through a self reporting system.
“If a student or employee fails to disclose to the university that they have tested positive, the University will have no way of knowing and communicating that information,” the statement reads on the university website.
In an email to the school. Dr. Julie Estis, head of the administration’s COVID Committee for Reopening Campus said the school is doing everything they can and will consider returning to online classes if the committee finds it necessary. They also provide consistent updates on the situation.
“The University is continually monitoring the health of the campus population and the public health of our region. The campus is poised to move back to remote work and remote instruction if necessary to protect the health of students and employees,” Dr. Estis wrote in her email to the Vanguard.
Before the semester began, a petition was started by associate professor of Spanish Zoya Khan asking the administration to move classes online for the first two school weeks. It was signed by over 50 professors.
“These are worst-case scenario conditions that no one expected would be so bad, particularly at this time of year as all of us are preparing hard for the upcoming semester,” the letter to the administration COVID Committee reads. “However, these statistics reveal a sobering reality–one which we need to face. Requiring students, staff, and faculty to return for in-person classes next week can put people in harm’s way…Given the dire situation facing our city, we recommend that the University allow faculty and staff to commence the semester virtually.”
A recent resolution drafted by the faculty senate published Aug. 25 also called for the administration to include a faculty member on the administration’s COVID Committee for Reopening Campus since none are currently represented, according to the resolution.
Some schools with far fewer cases have already introduced new safety measures like Liberty University in Virginia which cancelled in-door classes and many major events on campus in the wake of rising COVID cases. They had 159 active cases before making the decision, according to an ABC 13 News article written by correspondent David Cross. The school now has 535 active cases as of Sept. 2, according to Liberty University’s COVID dashboard.
While students are happy to be back, opinions on COVID protocol appear mixed. It seems universal that students are happy to be back on campus however levels of concerns about COVID vary from student to student. Some are simply happy things are back on their way to normal, others feel safe and feel the school is doing what they can while there are also those expressing concern over a lack of action like Liv George, a senior at South.
“It seems a bit flippant, especially since they released, I think it was like two back-to-back press releases on Thursday or Friday of last week, talking about how they would under no circumstances reduce the capacity of the stadium for this weekend’s game,” George expressed. “I think considering all of the COVID circumstances, lowering the amount of people we allow into buildings just seems like the right thing to do. We didn’t schedule fall semester classes with social distancing in mind and I think we’re seeing firsthand how big of a mistake that is.”
Makayla Steele, a sophomore studying recreational therapy was asked about her feelings on the situation.
“I think making masks mandatory in buildings and stuff like that to implement in classrooms is a good start. I think they’re doing as much as they can,” Steele replied when asked about her feelings on the university’s COVID response.
Hailey Witherspoon, a junior and student worker at the Student Recreation center said she’s happy to be back on campus.
“I’m happy everything’s back and re-opened and I hope it stays that way,” said Witherspoon.
There is a vaccine incentive involving special parking privileges to encourage vaccination but there remains the question of whether or not campus buildings should mandate half capacity once again. South Alabama has high vaccination rates among staff, making them feel confident the protections in place are sufficient.
The football stadium remaining at full capacity, however, is a recurring concern voiced by students and staff alike. In response, Dr. Estis released a statement earlier today reminding students of the policies in place before the football game against Southern Mississippi Sept. 4.
“In-person events such as ceremonies, meetings and social gatherings are allowed if all USA COVID-19 precautions as listed above and on this website are followed. Masks are required for indoor events. Masks are also required in crowded areas during outdoor events, such as when entering or exiting. If food and beverages are served, 6-feet distancing must be maintained while eating and drinking,” the reminder reads.
Dr. Estis also corresponded with the Vanguard after being asked about the state of COVID at South and in Mobile.
“It is important that student and employees do their part to stay South Strong— that means considering COVID-19 vaccination and following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines like wearing a mask, practicing good hand hygiene, monitoring symptoms, and staying away from others if you are sick or have been exposed to COVID-19,” Dr. Estis wrote.
70% of employees at USA Health are currently vaccinated and that number is expected to get to 75% soon. Overall, a total of 60% of all faculty has received a vaccination so far, according to John V. Marymont, dean of the College of Medicine, who presented this information to South Alabama’s Board of Trustees Sept. 2.
The situation at the school is changing constantly but we will continue to update our readers as the situation develops.