INDIANAPOLIS — While many colleges and universities across the state are preparing for students to return to campus in a month, the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rapidly rise among all Hoosiers but are highest among the college-age 20-29 group.
Nearly one in five new cases—17.7%—of the highly contagious virus are diagnosed among those in the 20-29 age group and more than half of all new cases are among Hoosiers under age 50, according to Indiana State Department of Health data.
Colleges and universities across Indiana are struggling to balance a traditional college experience with the need to provide for the health and learning needs of students. The state’s network of private colleges and universities look to the State Department of Health and Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box for guidance, while larger institutions have developed plans to mix in-person classes with virtual learning.
Indiana University and Purdue University, for example, are scheduling the fall and spring semesters without the traditional break to limit the spread of COVID-19. For on-campus classes, schools like IU will require students to wear masks indoors while making accommodations to maintain social distancing. Instructors are also trying to make as many classes online as possible and allowing those who have health conditions to opt for virtual classes over Zoom.
“If they put the right precautions in place it can be done safely, but it will require a lot of education for the students,” said Shandy Dearth, director of undergraduate epidemiology education at Indiana University Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health.
Haley Stroup, a junior at Ball State, said she is uneasy about going back to school because she has asthma and a weaker immune system. But she said she will use her position as a resident assistant to promote safety procedures on campus. Even with awareness and other guidelines she said she is still afraid people will be reckless and not follow the rules put in place, therefore causing cases to skyrocket.
“I am definitely going to be taking as much precaution as possible,” Stroup said, “It is so important to me that everyone is being safe, we don’t want anyone getting sick if possible. And doing things as simple as wearing a mask and sanitizing often can save so many people.”
The Independent Colleges of Indiana, which represents Indiana’s 30 private colleges and universities, said its member institutions have been meeting weekly to discuss their responses to COVID-19. Each campus is monitoring the situation with their local public health and government officials and making decisions based on the health, safety, and continuing needs of their students, faculty and staff.
But for schools and the communities where they are located, the challenge is regulating the behavior of young adults, who tend to crowd in bars and in other close social gathering where the risk of spreading the virus is high.
“We know that as people may venture out more, more people are likely to become infected,” ISDH said in a statement online. “In addition, younger people may be more likely to go out to restaurants, bars, entertainment venues and social gatherings, which can increase their risk of infection.”
Dearth said she is seeing younger people relax on the safety guidelines and that is why they are seeing the highest percentage of positive cases.
“From what we’re seeing, people in their 20s and 30s just aren’t practicing social distancing and they aren’t wearing their masks when they’re together,” Dearth said, “I think the belief is, well, they won’t get as sick as someone who is older so it’s not that big of a deal.”
Dearth said that many bars in college towns will be implementing new social distancing rules to help slow the spread of COVID-19 by limiting the number of people in the bar and making all customers be seated at tables to avoid overcrowding at the bar.
Besides wearing a mask and social distancing, Dearth said it is important for students to remember to get a flu shot this year as well. Dearth also wants students to pick up their phone if they receive a call from either their local public health department or their school to help with contact tracing.
Biology instructor Alicia Cecil at the University of Indianapolis said she knows there will have to be some changes in on campus. She is teaching two classes this semester, both of which can mostly be done online except for the labs, which are being scheduled in smaller groups to ensure social distancing.
“Wearing a mask is hard when you’re talking constantly, I know health care professionals do it all the time and they get used to it, so I think we can also adapt,” Cecil said. She emphasized that colleges are forced to be flexible and find new ways to teach, such as online classes and more hands-on style classes rather than lectures. “This may actually be a way for higher education to evolve and be flexible, which can be a challenge for people working in higher education, but this could be a good thing.”
Lilly Rambis, a junior at Indiana Southern University, is a part of the nursing school and also understands the risk that comes with students going back.
“I am worried that I might get the virus and unknowingly pass it on to someone at risk,” Rambis said.
She went on to say she plans on wearing a mask and only going out to go to classes and work. But Rambis is still is afraid it will be a “50/50” on other students obeying these new rules. She said she believes it will be hard to enforce because people may not think the guidelines are important or that they will not be impacted by COVID-19.