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Private universities in state outline reopenings

Schools seeking safe return to campus by Jaime Adame | May 7, 2020 at 3:19 a.m.
File photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/ANTHONY REYES @NWATONYR Students walk on campus near the fountain in front of the Cathedral of the Ozarks at John Brown University in Siloam Springs.

Being "committed" to reopening the John Brown University campus this fall involves examining the idea of coronavirus testing for students, faculty and staff members, while another private university in the state also put forward a statement this week about resuming in-person classes.

Ouachita Baptist University on Wednesday announced remarks by President Ben Sells that the Arkadelphia campus plans to resume in-person classes and residential life this fall.

The universities and others suspended in-person classes because of the coronavirus pandemic. Respiratory droplets emitted by an infected person are a main way the illness spreads, and that's more likely when people are within about 6 feet of one another, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Chip Pollard, president of John Brown University, in a letter Monday outlined various changes the campus is "exploring," including "access to testing for COVID-19 for faculty, staff and students" and "reserving residential space for isolation of students who might get sick."

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The private Christian college in Siloam Springs is in discussions with other colleges and universities in Arkansas -- both private and public -- about possibly coordinating testing for students, Julie Gumm, a spokeswoman for university, said Wednesday.

"JBU is committed to being open in the fall in compliance with all government requirements to protect the health of our students, staff and faculty as well as the community of Siloam Springs," Pollard said in the statement Monday. The university's academic calendar lists Aug. 24 as the first day of fall semester classes.

Gumm on Wednesday said the university remains willing to adjust its plans.

"If the fluid nature of this situation changes and the governmental restrictions are such that JBU cannot return to face-to-face instruction, then we will comply," Gumm said in an email.

Pollard, in his letter, said the university is also "exploring systems for contact tracing," a method used to slow the spread of contagious disease by identifying those in contact with someone known to be infected.

Sells, in an email to his Arkadelphia campus Tuesday, said "the health and safety of our students, faculty, staff and guests continues to lead our decision-making."

Brooke Zimny, a Ouachita Baptist spokeswoman, said Wednesday that there are many health protocols being considered.

"All protocols will be guided by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and Arkansas Department of Health and likely will be developed in conjunction with other universities in the state," Zimny said.

Harding University, the state's largest private university, on Friday announced that it had convened a task force to study reopening, but that no decision had been made.

The task force includes Dr. Roddy Lochala, chief medical officer for Unity Health medical center in Searcy, where campus is. Harding enrolled 4,793 students this past fall, according to the state Division of Higher Education.

JBU is the state's second-largest private university, enrolling 2,318 students this past fall, according to state data. Pollard's letter states "the situation remains fluid so we do not have final plans."

But Pollard also sketched a vision for changes to many facets of campus life.

"I expect that we will be asking students to take more responsibility for caring for their neighbors, which may involve practices such as standing in line for a few minutes with proper social distancing before you enter the Caf or wearing masks to lower the risk of transmitting infection," Pollard said, referring to a nickname for the university's main dining hall.

Additionally, Pollard described other ideas being explored by the university, including: "evaluating best practices to lower the density of people in classrooms, dining hall and other facilities; developing new procedures for serving of food in the dining hall; enhancing cleaning protocols across campus; and evaluating the feasibility of ensuring that there are 'touchless' fixtures in all larger bathrooms."

Large group activities, including athletics and chapel services, are also being studied, Pollard wrote, as is "compressing the semester calendar to help minimize nonessential travel for students."

Pollard also said the university's "plans during the year may also have to shift to respond to changing circumstances or government requirements, so we may need to ask for students and families to be patient and flexible with changes throughout the year."

Public universities including the University of Arkansas System, the Arkansas State University System and Arkansas Tech University have issued brief statements or resolutions to say they intend to reopen for on campus classes this fall. Campus leaders have also described ongoing planning for various possible scenarios amid uncertainty related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Metro on 05/07/2020


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