In 2020, the world experienced the COVID-19 pandemic. Many colleges and universities have reacted to this pandemic in a variety of ways. The Spring Hill College Vice President of Student Affairs, Kevin Abel, recently sat down and spoke of what he learned this Fall semester.
Abel stated, “When I reflect back on this semester, I feel we have done relatively well as a campus in terms of weathering very uncertain circumstances, a lot of unknowns, and really a whole new way of doing community on our college campus.”
SHC’s major case spike of the semester happened the first week of September, “We experienced a spike early on. Particularly on September 1st and 2nd where we saw about twenty-two cases each day. That was by far the most difficult part of our semester. I think everyone from our students to our staff learned quite a bit from that time. I think in particular we all kind of took it for granted that we would be okay or assumed that we could do things as normal and not have it spread. Obviously, that was not the case.” He continued, “During that first week, we recognize that there were some folks who did not pay attention to their symptoms right away. Which probably helped contribute to the spread. There were gatherings that occurred that also contributed to that.”
When speaking of the measures he was proud of, Abel explained “After the first week, we did go back and we restricted some things within the cafeteria. We remained in a togo only manner. We did reduce the number of people that would be together whether with sanctioned or unsanctioned events. I think was important for us to do but most importantly I think after that the students started wearing their masks more started distancing more and started understanding how quickly that spread could happen. From that point, we have seen relatively low numbers and currently, we’re sitting at three active cases as of November 9th, and we have stayed relatively below a one percent active infection rate for the past three or four weeks which has been encouraging for me to see.”
Abel continued, “I do think the Sentinel testing has been incredibly helpful for us to have a barometer of where we are at. The surveillance testing that SHC Athletics has done, they are testing about 30 percent of their athletes every other week that has also provided a great barometer for where we are at with our asymptomatic population because that is really where the spread occurs. So, those tools have been very helpful to pay attention to.”
Abel headed warning to the Spring Hill community to be careful during this seemingly second wave, “During this time that we [SHC] have seen a decrease in infections, Mobile county as a whole has seen a 75% increase in community transmission in the 18-24 age group. So, that number has gone up significantly within the county. I think early on it was in older populations where we were seeing that transmission. Here recently in Mobile county, it’s in that 18-24 age group. Within the ZIP code that SHC is in, the 36608, has the highest community transmission rate per 100,000 in Mobile County. I think that’s important for us to know. One, it is a reminder that it is in our community and circulating within our community and we need to be mindful of that.”
“From the very beginning, I had extended an invitation that if there were ideas that were out there of ways we could do things better, more responsibly, then I would welcome those conversations and welcome those ideas and meet with any group of students to review those. During the first several weeks, I didn’t have too many students who were approaching or offering ideas. About two weeks into September, we did have a student who came forward and brought some general concerns forward about things in isolation and questions about programming and just clarity around the things we were communicating.”
That was very helpful to me and that resulted in being able to form an advisory group that has been able to meet twice so far just to talk about things on campus. We met twice to just talk about concerts that were there from the group and thoughts that they had and hear ideas as well. So we have gotten some valuable feedback especially in terms of clarification of what we have put on the BadgersBack website and how we’re communicating about gatherings and programming on campus. Which was very helpful to me to be able to bounce off students because what is in my head and what is in others head or what we think is clear at times is not always clear to students.”
In terms of the outlook on next semester, “As we look to next semester I think a few things that I’ve been thinking about and some opportunities that are on the horizon. We are in the midst of the second wave, which is what we are hearing from our medical experts. Alabama has not fully recognized that second wave yet. It seems to be starting in the north and working its way south especially as the weather changes. We are very concerned about what that may mean in December and January. I anticipate we start next semester with similar guidelines that we have now. I don’t anticipate that it will be too different from where we’re operating now, but that certainly could change.”
He spoke about COVID-19 testing next semester “We have been working hard to review our testing plans for next semester. At the end of this calendar year the CARES Act funding that Alabama has graciously given colleges and universities is running out. We have been able to access a large number of tests to get our athletes back on the field and keep them competing. We are excited about being able to do more testing on campus that has come in at no cost through the state of Alabama. Sentinel testing will still continue through the Spring semester. We want to make sure we’re testing on a weekly basis, random samples of our population.”
Abel continued, “We will also be testing students as they go through Greek recruitment. So anyone going through Greek recruitment either as a recruit or as a current member will be tested prior to that time. So we are trying to sure up some things from a testing standpoint that folks who are participating in those situations that may be close contact that they are bing tested frequently.”
In terms of a future vaccine, “We are also hopeful too and have begun preliminary conversations with both the state and the county about where SHC would fit into the state's vaccination plans. We are hopeful that at some point during the Spring semester we will have a vaccine available to us. That we will be able to distribute, but so much of that is reliant on the trials and the approvals.”
When speaking of the concern students had regarding the Spring calendar and the lack of a Mardi Gras break and a Spring break, Abel said, “It was primarily looking at the Spring calendar and trying to find ways to reduce student travel. I think that is what the recommendations have been. From our health experts and as we confer with colleagues on what they are doing as well, I think it has become a consensus with colleges and universities that the best way to reduce travel is to eliminate some of those breaks.”
“Now, I will say it is cause of great concern for me in terms of the emotional health of our campus. That is something that is not lost on me. It is something the student advisory group and me talked about and we are going to be actively finding ways to do anything we can to help students maintain a positive emotional health. I relayed some of the advisory board comments to our academic administration as well because I think it’s helpful for them to hear what students are hearing.”
When questioned about the declining mental health of the students this past semester, Abel said, “We have seen a slight uptick in our [counseling] numbers but it has not been significant. I think that we are probably hearing more anecdotes from students in terms of how they are feeling. It’s a whole variety of factors. It’s not having the same social scene, not being able to have the same social outlets to be able to connect with others and be in community. We are used to being in community. It’s also too when you have more courses online, sometimes that takes more work than you are used to and it gets confusing.
When speaking of the stress of not only students but also faculty/staff, Abel said, “None of us work on a college campus or attend college to be away from people. We love the college environment, we love working with students. It is incredibly hard on faculty, staff and students alike, not to have the Spring Hill experience.”
“I am proud of our community. I think being a small private school we don't always have the resources that larger schools do. I think at the same time too we have more agility in some ways. Our community knows each other better which has helped us be able to be successful. I’m also grateful to the State of Alabama for the resources in testing and Guidesafe.”
Abel has stated that he is always willing to meet with students that might have questions, concerns or ideas to improve our campus.