As the fall semester quickly approaches, Case Western Reserve University is preparing for students to begin arriving from all across the country and beyond. Unlike previous semesters, however, the university will face the realities of a worldwide pandemic.
As of Aug. 20, there are a total of 104,999 confirmed cases in Ohio, 13,640 of which are in Cuyahoga County. There have been 3,907 deaths due to COVID-19 in Ohio as of Aug. 11. The overall trend for the number of new cases seems to have increased since around June 11, meaning we have experienced over a month of increasing case incidence.
The City of Cleveland enacted a mandatory mask policy on July 3. This came in the aftermath of COVID-19 case increases in the city and the county. Businesses are mandated to require masks of their customers and individuals must wear masks in public spaces as well.
Gov. Mike DeWine later informed the public that masks would be mandated in seven counties in Ohio that had experienced significant increases in cases, including Cuyahoga County. Cleveland, a city of around 380,000 people and the second-most populous city in Ohio, faces an elevated threat due to population density and difficulties with social distancing. By July 22, DeWine announced a statewide mask mandate.
“Many people have been complying with these preventative measures,” said Krysta Aulak, a rising third-year medical anthropology major and Cleveland native. “However, there is a large group of people that are not complying with these recommendations, refusing to wear a mask in public.” Aulak also noted that some people were not complying with social distancing orders in public spaces such as Put-In-Bay, the Lake Erie island village. This noncompliance has been linked to COVID-19 hotspots, with Put-In-Bay’s social gatherings causing the virus to spread expeditiously.
“In some restaurants, such as Mitchell’s Ice Cream, employees were wearing gloves as well as masks,” said Aulak when asked about local businesses’ compliance with disease prevention protocols. On the other hand, Townhall in Ohio City recently argued in favor of “herd immunity” and said that we should be focusing on a good diet instead of prevention and containment of the virus’s spread, a generally unfounded claim. Businesses like Townhall not supporting mask mandates and social distancing orders are an active detriment to efforts to contain the spread of the virus.
“I’m worried if people continue to get too comfortable, then cases are going to skyrocket and then I won’t be able to return to campus at all. This is very worrisome since I know myself and many of my peers struggled to complete online courses,” said Natalie Hiney, a fourth-year student majoring in psychology and sociology. Online courses allow for remote learning, but pose many challenges for students who struggle with distance learning due to internet issues, technology accessibility and general compatibility with the format.
“I’m seeing more and more conspiracy theories spreading around with the idea that the virus and lockdowns and masks are all some sort of hoax, and I personally know people who are starting to believe it. It’s all a distraction from the fact that we aren’t improving as we should,” explained Hiney, when asked about what may drive anti-mask sentiments.
The actions of anti-maskers have been detracting from the efforts of the CDC and health professionals all across the country, with some cities experiencing anti-mask protests. This seems hard to believe given empirical evidence of masks being effective in reducing virus transmission rate. Nonetheless, the protests themselves and the sentiments behind them have added to the spread of COVID-19, dragging the pandemic out further and endangering more people’s health.
CWRU is implementing a hybrid system of education for the upcoming semester, mixing traditional in-person classes with online coursework to balance the quality of education and personal safety. Around 60% of coursework will be completed with in-person components, per an email from the administration sent on July 8. This will likely shift towards more online coursework, due to the limited number of students physically on campus.
Student safety on campus will be a top priority, according to recent emails from the administration. Two cloth masks will be provided to every student and masks will be mandatory inside buildings and in public where social distancing is not possible. There will also be COVID-19 testing available for students who are at risk or display symptoms. CWRU administration has enacted a staggered move-in for students to hopefully reduce the chances of spreading the virus.
On the morning of Aug. 6, President Barbara R. Snyder and Provost and Executive Vice President Ben Vinson III sent an email to the student body informing them of an update to the university’s housing policy. On-campus housing will be limited to first-year students, new transfer students, resident students from the summer, international students, second- and third-year nursing students and students graduating this semester or academic year. This change in policy will only apply for this fall semester for those students living in on-campus and Greek housing. Housing plans for the spring semester have yet to be finalized.
The email also announced that course guidelines on participation may change, since fewer students will be able to attend in-person classes. The university has also made clear that students with extenuating circumstances may apply to receive an exception to the new housing guidelines, but those additional housing spots will be limited. This housing change was met with backlash from students who had their housing taken away just over two weeks before move-in.
There was also confusion among students as to how housing costs would be affected by the housing policy change. Communication from CWRU administration indicated that students would have to manually cancel their housing only a few days from the time of notification, but this only applied for any students who retained their housing after the policy change who sought to opt out of on-campus housing. Students who lost their housing per the policy change automatically had their housing costs dropped.
Students who still intend to live on campus after implementation of the new housing policy were instructed to complete an online re-orientation module to learn about CWRU’s safety practices for the upcoming semester. These training videos and quizzes emphasized proper distancing, mask use and hand washing, as well as how and when to request testing in case of COVID-19 infection.
The pandemic has also posed distinct challenges for the Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM). Proper performances and practices require musicians to be physically together, something that is incompatible with the concept of social distancing.
“Most of our classes will be in person, considering classes like orchestra and chamber music are simply not possible online,” explained Claire Peyrebrune, a rising third-year student at CIM majoring in viola performance. “We are encouraged to take our CWRU classes online to reduce risk of infection.”
CIM plans to have temperature screenings before entry into buildings and a mandatory mask policy while in shared spaces. Orchestral string sections will be masked and distanced from each other. There is also the possibility of face shields in smaller studios and shields in front of the winds and brass sections to prevent respiratory droplets from spreading the coronavirus.
“Personally, if all our classes continued to be solely online, I would seriously consider taking the semester off because it would be too difficult to get the education I need and am paying for,” said Peyrebrune.
This opinion is shared by many other students at universities across the country, including at CWRU.
A question arises about if the recent upticks in COVID-19 cases in the local city, county and state will impact CWRU and CIM’s plans for the fall semester. There is the possibility that we may experience a repeat of last March when campus closed down and students were sent home to prevent the university from becoming a hotspot.
University administrations across the country face an immense challenge this fall: balancing the health of students, faculty and staff with the increased quality of education provided by in-person instruction.
COVID-19 is a very real threat, especially for those who are at serious risk or have personally experienced the disease. Alia Basar, a rising third-year student majoring in electrical engineering, is a high-risk member of the student body.
“I have had several maintenance workers enter my suite wearing their masks incorrectly—below their noses—or not wearing a mask at all,” reported Basar. She explained that she emailed the university about the events and was told that the issue would be resolved.
“So far, students, especially orientation leaders, have been following guidelines amazingly,” said Basar. She did note, however, that this may change as the majority of the student body coming back to campus actually arrive.
Basar also reported that campus COVID-19 testing took only five minutes and she received her results in three to four days. It remains to be seen how testing efficiency will be affected by students arriving on campus.
Jessie Lin, a rising third-year student majoring in communication sciences and psychology, contracted COVID-19 after flying from her hometown of Honolulu, Hawaii back to Cleveland.
“I cannot stress this enough. Please, do your part and wear a mask,” said Lin. Her experiences with the coronavirus and subsequent recovery have shown her why following the proper prevention protocols are essential in the coming weeks and months. It is far better to avoid catching COVID-19 entirely than have to deal with the symptoms and risk of an infection.