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Students at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19 brace for the return to campus

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Hayley Shasteen

Hayley Shasteen, a Kent State senior double majoring in molecular and cellular biology and psychology, has lupus. She said returning to campus in the fall is "not worth the risk of catching a virus that could potentially severely affect me." 

Hayley Shasteen is in no hurry to return to Kent State’s campus when it reopens in the fall.

A rising senior who is a double major in molecular and cellular biology and psychology, Shasteen has lupus, an autoimmune disorder that causes her body to mistakenly attack healthy tissue.

Although her lupus is currently in remission, she said she’s still more prone to infections than the average person and will often experience illness differently or for longer periods of time than others. 

If she were to become infected with COVID-19, she said, “I don’t know how my immune system would react.”

Since the pandemic closed campus in March, Shasteen stays home most of the time for fear of becoming sick. She has little contact with her mom, who works in a nursing home, and her boyfriend picks up her groceries.

Shasteen said returning to campus would mean putting herself in a situation where her health and safety could be compromised. 

“Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, you’re overreacting. You’re not going to die,’” she said. “But that’s a real and valid concern [for me].” 

Shasteen said she hasn’t seen any university-wide communications address students who are at high risk to become seriously ill from COVID-19. Students at the highest risk are those with underlying heart, lung or kidney conditions and those with sickle cell disease and Type 2 diabetes, among other conditions, according to research on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, which was updated in late June.

There also may be higher risk for those with asthma, high blood pressure, Type 1 diabetes and those taking immunosuppressants, along with several other conditions. The data is limited at this time.  

“I feel like no one’s really talking about students like me or what we’re going to do,” she said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, just come to campus. We will put plexiglass out,’ but I’m like, ‘That’s not what we want. That’s not going to work.’” 

Shasteen said she’s seen academic research and other, more anecdotal information that suggests some of those who contract COVID-19 could experience irreparable damage to their bodies and brains that could affect them for years to come. 

It makes her wonder why the university would risk reopening at all. 

“It’s not impossible to move everything online,” she said. “They’ve already done it. There’s no reason to force anyone to go to campus at this point.”

The decision to reopen

Like Shasteen, critics nationwide are questioning the ethical implications of reopening college campuses.

Plans to prevent outbreaks on college campuses are “so unrealistically optimistic that they border on delusional,” said a Temple University psychology professor.

Administrators who know their campuses are “hotbeds of illness” yet are willing to reopen and put students, faculty and staff at risk to potentially suffer permanent damage if they contract the virus are “exploitative,” said a law professor at Georgetown University.

One journalism professor at North Carolina State University said he feels pressure to teach in person to keep the institution financially afloat. He argued students and staff shouldn’t have to “risk their health for a university’s bottom line.”

At Kent State, Manfred van Dulmen, chair of the university’s reopening steering committee, answered with a firm “no” when asked if finances are a factor in the university’s decision to reopen.

Manfred van Dulmen

Manfred van Dulmen is the interim associate provost at Kent State and chairs the reopening steering committee.

But after a pause, he said, “I understand why it could potentially be received that way.”

At Kent State, about 6,500 students lived in on-campus housing last spring. The average cost to live in a dorm for the upcoming fall semester is $4,028. If the university decided to go totally remote and keep the dorms closed for the semester, it would potentially lose more than $26 million in revenue.

Lisa Dannemiller, Kent State’s interim chief university physician, said the university made the decision to reopen after a review of guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and discussion with the Inter-University Council of Ohio (IUC) led administrators to conclude the university had the tools to keep students, staff and faculty safe.

The IUC is an association of 14 Ohio public universities established to “assist in sustaining and improving the quality of public higher education,” according to its website

In early May, the council decided to form a group to discuss the governor’s recommendations for reopening. Although each university represented has its own reopening strategy, the group agreed on a common set of guidelines. Its members  check in weekly to give updates and raise concerns.

The university also received financial support from the federal government to invest in technology, infrastructure and the personnel needed to keep students safe during the pandemic, van Dulmen said. For instance, the university hired contract tracers and made renovations to the DeWeese Health Center. 

Students’ opinions also played a pivotal role in the decision to reopen, said van Dulmen, who is the interim associate provost for academic affairs and the interim dean of graduate students. 

Reopening committees looked at national surveys, which found that at least three quarters of students expressed “an interest and desire to be back on campus,” he said. A survey taken earlier this summer at Kent State yielded similar results. Van Dulmen could not provide details about the survey but said, “from what I recall, [it was] an ad-hoc initiated survey.”

About ten student leaders from University Student Government, Graduate Student Senate and other student organizations sit on some of the university’s reopening committees, which are aiming to find “equitable, reasonable and flexible” solutions for moving forward, van Dulmen said, with flexibility being the key word.

One way the university is providing flexibility is by allowing students to request to take in-person classes remotely by filling out the Pandemic Adjustment Request Accommodation Form

“We want to make sure we’re giving students and professionals options for how they want to engage,” van Dulmen said. 

He added the decisions the committee makes about how the university will proceed with reopening are “always in the best interest of the students.” 

But contracting COVID-19 isn’t in any student’s best interest, especially when there is a risk of experiencing negative health effects associated with the virus — for instance, blood clotting, strokes, memory loss, hallucinations and even infertility.

When KentWired asked van Dulmen if he’s worried about students experiencing long-term complications of COVID-19, he said,

“I’m not going to say I’m not concerned. I am concerned about the disease.” 

What students need to know “is they have a choice,” he said. "We don’t want anyone to feel forced.”

Students wouldn’t have the option to endanger themselves if administrators decided not to open the university, KentWired pointed out, to which van Dulmen replied, “It’s a fair point.” 

He said to help students make an informed decision about returning to campus, some of the university’s reopening efforts are geared toward educating students about the coronavirus and curbing misinformation about its impact. 

Van Dulmen will be hosting a Facebook Live Town Hall on Monday, July 27 at 3 p.m. on Kent State’s page to answer reopening questions from graduate students.

Dannemiller, Lisa

Lisa Dannemiller, Kent State’s interim chief university physician, sits on the university's testing and contact tracing reopening committee.

Dannemiller, who sits on the testing and contact tracing reopening committee at Kent State, said each student needs to make a decision based on their own assessment of the risks after talking with their doctor.

“Some people would never do skydiving because of the risks involved, and some wouldn’t imagine passing up the opportunity, no matter the risk,” she said. “People are going to determine the risk to be different.”

The university is also staying up-to-date on the latest information about the virus.

“How are we opening? We’ll know the day before the semester starts,” van Dulmen said. “If we feel that we have to make changes, we will.”

Change of plans

Some students who are at high risk to become severely ill from COVID-19 are hoping to reduce their risk of exposure by modifying their plans for the fall semester. 

Cindy Perkovich
Cindy Perkovich in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on a June 2017 research trip to sample invertebrate populations. Perkovich, a doctoral ecology student at Kent State with Type 1 diabetes, asked to teach a lab with fewer students in the fall to lessen her potential exposure to COVID-19.

Cindy Perkovich, a doctoral ecology student at Kent State with Type 1 diabetes, is one of them.

Perkovich said she’s apprehensive about returning to campus to teach. 

Originally, she was scheduled to teach a maximum of 20 students in a section of biological diversity, one of Kent State’s core science classes. But a high volume of people — 16 sections worth — would be coming through the lab each week.

“I requested to be put into a different lab,” she said. “One that didn’t have as many students coming and going because I just feel a little bit more secure.”

The new class she is assigned to teach, local flora, will cap at nine students. She said sanitizing after those nine students leave the lab will be more manageable.

Not teaching this semester was never a possibility in Perkovich’s mind. 

“I felt like, ‘OK, I have to teach. It’s my job.’”

For her, the question was, “Which class could I teach that would be safer for me?”

Perkovich said the biology department staff was receptive to her concerns about her health. She knows of one other student with health concerns who, after asking for an accommodation, was assigned to teach a section that will meet strictly online.

“If you voice your concern and you have a legitimate issue, they do work with you,” she said.  

Perkovich said the messages she’s seen from her department have tried to frame returning to campus in the fall in a positive light. 

Rather than using language that pressures teaching assistants to return, she said, it seems that the messages are trying to persuade them that returning to teach is a good idea.

“It's more, ‘This is an opportunity to develop your skills and to work in, you know, special circumstances,’” she said. 

Unlike Perkovich, Shasteen, the student with lupus, said she doesn’t feel comfortable returning to school, no matter what safeguards the university puts in place. 

“Whether it be plexiglass barriers or hand-washing stations or requiring a mask, I truly don't think that's enough for students like me because there's always going to be that sense of fear,” Shasteen said.

In order for her to feel safe and comfortable returning to campus, she said, “there would have to be a vaccine or a treatment for COVID-19. There's no guarantee without either of those things.”

The majority of Shasteen’s fall classes will be online, but two classes required for her Jewish studies minor will meet in person — which is making Shasteen consider dropping her minor altogether.

“To me, eight credits of Hebrew and Jewish studies is not worth the risk of catching a virus that could potentially severely affect me,” she said.

When Shasteen received her revised course schedule on June 30, she filled out a form asking for permission to take the courses remotely, but she’s not sure if that will be possible or how soon she’ll hear back. 

Student Accessibility Services (SAS) director Amanda Feaster said students who want to request remote access to in-person classes must fill out the Pandemic Adjustment Request Accommodation Form

Any student, faculty, or staff member can make a request, including those who have no disability or chronic illness. Once the request is submitted, it goes directly to Feaster so it can be screened for potential confidential medical or disability information. From there, SAS handles the request or hands it off to another department if it’s not disability-related. 

Feaster said submitting the form isn’t about “getting approval.” 

“Our role is to facilitate the request and to make sure that both the student and faculty member have the support they need to complete the semester,” she said. 

Amanda Feaster

Amanda Feaster, director of Student Accessibility Services, receives requests for remote access to in-person classes and screens them for potential confidential medical or disability information.

The university may not be able to accommodate all requests. “There may be some circumstances where a course cannot be delivered remotely, such as courses that require specialized technology or hands-on activities,” Feaster said. “In those cases, we will work with the department and the student to determine what options are available.” 

The university is committed, she said, to “providing as much remote access as possible to all students, faculty and staff during the pandemic.”

Students will not be asked for documentation of a disability or medical condition from a doctor unless they're asking for additional accommodations or want to use services in future semesters. But if the student is just requesting to take an in-person class remotely this semester, no documentation will be required. 

As of July 9, Feaster received about 100 requests. She said while the office doesn't have a timeline for turning the paperwork around, they hope to have confirmation to students "as soon as possible."

Katherine Schroeder

Katherine Schroeder, a junior human development and family studies major at Kent State, is in stage-three heart failure. She plans to return to campus in the fall.

Worth the risk

Rising junior and human development and family studies major Katherine Schroeder is in stage-three heart failure — and with the number of coronavirus cases rising, she’s afraid to go anywhere.

“Going out is just not something I want to test the waters with,” she said. “It’s not worth risking going to concerts or going to Giant Eagle with no mask over something that we don’t know the outcome of.”

Schroeder, who was born with a heart defect and grew up attending doctor’s appointments and undergoing surgeries, received the news she was in heart failure her freshman year of college after having surgery to replace a pacemaker. 

Being in stage-three heart failure means Schroeder is focused on maintaining her heart’s health. She’s not currently on a heart transplant list, and she’s not taking any drugs that would compromise her immune system, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have to be careful.

“My body is already so fragile,” she said. “My heart is struggling already.”

In spite of the risk, Schroeder will be returning to campus this fall.

She will be living in a single dorm with its own bedroom, bathroom and kitchen and taking all of her classes online so she’ll be able to control who she is exposed to and for how long. She feels comfortable with this, and her doctors signed off on the plan.

Katherine Schroeder

Katherine Schroeder (center) with her boyfriend, Ian Herrmann, also a Kent State student, during one of her hospital stays in the Cleveland Clinic ICU in April 2019. 

“Will I go to the library to get Starbucks? Probably not. When a bunch of people get together and go to dinner, I probably won’t go,” she said. “But at least I can have contact with them … if I know they’ve been safe because that interaction is important to me.” 

Schroeder said her family always aimed to “give [her] the most possible” by allowing her to have experiences close to those of her peers. At this stage of life, that means living independently and developing the skills to be on her own.

“We’ve learned that I do better mentally and physically when I’m engaged with other people because I feel normal,” she said. “Being on campus gives me a life.” 

There are still some details about living on campus to hammer out. For instance, Schroeder is still not sure what she’ll do about moving in. 

In the past, she’s always moved in a day early to avoid crowds. “The website says, ‘if you are at risk, we ask that you don’t come to move in day because there will be a lot of people,’” Schroeder said. “Well, I have to move into my dorm.”

Schroeder called the SAS office and spoke with someone who said, “Since move in day is now staggered, I’m guessing you’ll move in on your assigned day with everyone else.”

The SAS worker gave her an email for someone to contact with further questions about having health complications and moving in. Schroeder sent an email and made a few more calls, but as of July 19, hadn’t heard back.

Another reason Schroeder is willing to return to campus, in spite of her fear of getting sick, is because she is confident in Kent State’s plan to keep students safe. 

“I have to trust that my university will take the precautions necessary,” she said. “If I don't, then that's my job to step back and to come home.”

She said Kent State’s decision to make mask-wearing mandatory had a huge impact on her decision to return.

“Plenty of campuses have kind of held back on [saying masks are mandatory] or are kind of wishy-washy about it, and for Kent State to stand firm, that really allowed me to have confidence in what they’re doing,” she said. 

When asked if she thinks she’ll be assertive enough to ask someone to put on a mask if she sees them without one around campus, Schroeder paused.

“You know, I ask myself that every day,” she said. “I want to be that assertive person, but at the same time, I have to respect that maybe they’re not wearing a mask" for medical reasons. 

For Schroeder, it’s easiest to bring up the mask issue person-to-person, when she can share the details about how the coronavirus impacts her life and the precautions she has to take to stay safe.

“There are a lot of people who have the ability to go out, and all they have to do is wear a mask and stand six feet away,” Schroeder said. “I think they forget how lucky they are.”

Schroeder said she sees value in framing conversations in light of what’s best for the entire community.

“I can't be quick to criticize. I have to be quick to educate,” she said. “Sometimes I'm like, ‘You know what? I can use this moment to teach someone that [wearing a mask] isn't all about you. It's about other people too.’”

 

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