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Isolation space cut at schools in state; colleges set virus protocols for fall

by Jaime Adame | July 26, 2021 at 7:12 a.m.
Old Main on the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville campus is shown in this Aug. 30, 2014, file photo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Residence halls this fall at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville will have far less isolation or quarantine housing compared with last year.

Students living on campus should plan to return home or find places to stay off-campus if they test positive for covid-19, according to UA's website. The isolation period should last until 10 days after symptoms began -- as long as there has been no fever for 24 hours -- according to the state Department of Health.

"University Housing will not be using a residence hall in response to COVID-19 this year," UA spokesman Christopher Spencer said in an email.

Last fall, UA's Holcombe Hall, a 140-bed facility, made up part of about 270 spaces designated by early September as quarantine and isolation housing for on-campus residents.

In early September, near the period when the campus was at its peak number of active infections, about half the spaces were in use, a UA spokesman said at the time. Some students were able to quarantine "in place" without moving to the designated rooms, while others opted to go home.

UA's residence hall population last fall was 4,621, according to data provided to the state Division of Higher Education.

Spencer said UA will start the fall with about 25 to 35 quarantine and isolation spaces available for students living in university housing. UA is the largest university in the state by enrollment.

UA's website says there will be "limited space" available for students in on-campus housing who need to quarantine or isolate. Students at UA who need to quarantine or isolate "should plan to spend their isolation time at home or an off-campus alternative," the website states, with UA staff members available to discuss "all viable options" with those students.

"No refunds will be provided for these temporary situations," Spencer said.

Several other colleges last year gave students the option of going home if exposed to the coronavirus or staying on campus in isolation or quarantine housing provided by the schools.

New protocols -- while having some flexibility -- come with UA expecting larger numbers of students on campus and with the state experiencing a surge of covid-19 hospitalizations not seen in months. The general move-in period for UA dorms begins Aug. 12, with a few students moving in earlier.

At Arkansas Tech University, most students will be expected to travel home from the Russellville campus for an isolation period if they come down with covid-19, a spokesman said.

Some other universities, including the University of Central Arkansas, will continue to offer on-campus isolation spaces, but the Conway campus is reducing the number of available beds by more than half compared with a year ago, a spokeswoman said. Arkansas State University will start the semester with fewer than the 110 spaces set aside at the beginning of last fall, spokesman Bill Smith said.

Everyone who tests positive for covid-19 -- even if vaccinated against the coronavirus -- should isolate, according to the state Department of Health. Fully vaccinated individuals do not need to quarantine if exposed to the coronavirus unless they show symptoms of covid-19, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. Symptoms include fever or chills, cough and fatigue.

RISING CASES

Statewide, the number of patients hospitalized because of covid-19 is at a level not seen since vaccines became widely available earlier this year.

The coronavirus, as happens with other viruses, is mutating, according to the CDC. A coronavirus variant known as "delta" is circulating widely through Arkansas, spreading more easily than other versions of the virus, health officials have said.

State lawmakers passed legislation this year to prohibit requirements on vaccination or mask-wearing by public entities such as state-supported colleges and universities.

The availability of vaccines is factoring into the universities' approach to the upcoming academic year compared with a year earlier. Leaders at colleges in the state have said they expect a return to bustling campuses this fall.

When it comes to campus housing, at UA there's been an increased demand compared with last year, according to the university.

Spencer said earlier this month that about 285 upper-level students were notified June 24 that even with contract agreements in place, there would be no space for them in residence halls because of demand for housing among first-year students. UA has said the upper-level students will be able to live in nearby apartments and pay the same costs as if they were living in residence halls.

Unmarried UA freshmen under age 21 are generally required to live on campus.

Last fall, UA allowed first-year students to cite covid-19 as a reason to request a waiver to live off-campus. For this fall, the exemption request form no longer provides an option for students to cite coronavirus concerns as reason for wanting to living off campus.

"This year is much different, and a vaccine exists," Spencer said when asked about the change from last year.

Spencer has declined to say how many students have housing contracts for this fall, though the university, in announcing the displacement of the approximately 285 upper-level students, said it anticipates its "largest-ever group of first-year students."

But even a return to numbers seen in 2019 would be a big increase from a year ago. Data provided by UA to the state Division of Higher Education shows that in fall 2019, 5,222 students were living in residence halls, about 13% more than last fall.

OTHER SCHOOLS

Other large public universities in the state have significantly smaller on-campus populations. But at those other large universities, those living on campus can still number a few thousand.

The Arkansas Tech decision to ask students to return home to isolate or quarantine in the upcoming academic year was made "based upon the increased availability of and access to COVID-19 vaccines as compared to the 2020-21 academic year," spokesman Sam Strasner said.

Strasner, when asked how many isolation spaces will be available this fall, said the Russellville campus is "monitoring trends and data to determine an appropriate number." He said there will be some beds "prioritized for cases among students who cannot travel home because of the distance involved, particularly out-of-state and international students."

Arkansas State University is setting aside four "isolation spaces" that students can use if they need such housing, according to Martha Spack, the university's vice chancellor for student affairs and dean of students. These are two-bedroom apartments, according to Spack.

Bill Smith, an ASU spokesman, said that with 110 isolation and quarantine rooms set aside last fall, "we never even approached using that much space" on the Jonesboro campus. Smith said many students already in single rooms -- without roommates -- were able to stay in place, and others went home if they were exposed to the coronavirus.

Smith said that in addition to the apartments, students are being grouped in residence halls this fall so as to leave unoccupied rooms together for use if an outbreak occurs. Smith said Thursday that he didn't have an estimate on how many residence hall rooms might be made available.

Among other public universities, the University of Central Arkansas is planning on providing 51 isolation or quarantine housing spaces, down from about 120 last academic year, said spokeswoman Fredricka Sharkey. She said more space could be added if needed.

The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith will have about 30 beds available this fall for students who need isolation or quarantine housing, spokeswoman Rachel Putman said. Fewer than 1,000 live on campus in a residence hall or in apartments.

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where a majority of students live off-campus, will have 12 isolation beds in apartments, spokesman Jeff Harmon said.

"If we happen to have a floor in West hall available we will use it as well. Students who test positive must return home unless they live more than three hours away," Harmon said in an email. "Isolation will be 10 days as has been standard."

COMMUNICATION KEY

The American College Health Association, in its covid-19 guidelines for fall 2021, stated: "Campuses should be discouraged from sending students home to isolate or quarantine in order to help prevent further community spread during transit."

But in a phone interview, Dr. Cheryl Hug-English, a member of the association's covid-19 task force, noted how vaccines are now widely available. She said sending a student home could be "an acceptable alternative" if the student's family is vaccinated. Factors such as whether a student would need to take public transportation to get home also matter, she said.

"We don't want to send people home where they're going to be putting other people or other family members at risk," said Hug-English, medical director for the student health center at the University of Nevada, Reno. She also noted how new guidelines for those vaccinated against covid-19 mean they may not have to quarantine.

"Campuses should have a plan for quarantine, and that can take on a variety of forms. For many campuses, it is still providing on-campus residential housing space for isolation and quarantine. But for other campuses, it may be off-campus sites," Hug-English said.

Hug-English said students and their families should be told what to expect should they be faced with having to quarantine or isolate.

"The first and foremost important thing is communication about the policy and making it clearly stated up front what the policy is, so students know that before they are in that situation," Hug-English said.

Spencer, asked what is being told to students planning to live on campus and to their parents, said information about the limited availability of isolation housing has been posted in the "frequently asked questions" section of the university's "Move-in 2021" online site.

In a neighboring state, schools encouraging but not requiring vaccination are taking different approaches to their housing.

At the University of Mississippi, "options for isolation involve temporary relocation to a designated isolation space on campus or returning to your family residence," according to the university's website.

Mississippi State University appears to be taking a similar approach to UA. On its website, it tells students that neither isolation nor quarantine spaces will be provided to on-campus students in most cases, with a "very limited number" of isolation spaces available for "short-term needs."

Print Headline: Colleges in state set virus protocols for fall

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