As of Wednesday, Kenyon reported five new positive COVID-19 cases in the past week, bringing the semester student total up to 12. In addition to the dozen active cases reported last week, which included seven students and five employees, the five new cases reflect a significant increase, with the cumulative number of cases now at 29. There are currently 39 students in quarantine.
According to Director of Health and Counseling Chris Smith, this significant increase in cases compared to the start of the previous semester is not surprising, given new and more contagious strains of COVID-19, and more students returning to campus than in the fall. However, the College’s overall positivity rate remains under 0.5% — a relatively low number. Because of this low positivity rate, Smith stressed that the College’s COVID-19 plan will not change significantly.
In Gambier, there are currently eight active cases, while Knox County reports 118 active cases. According to the most recent wastewater report from Feb. 4, virus levels decreased at most locations on campus and in the Village. “It appears that the first cases identified from returning students have been isolated successfully,” Joan Slonczewski, chair of the Wastewater Testing Subcommittee of the Public Health Working Group and professor of biology, wrote in an email update Wednesday night.
The College’s two-week quiet period, which began at the start of the semester, is set to end on Feb 15. After the quiet period concludes, one quarter of the student body will be tested each week in Gund Commons, according to an email Vice President of Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham sent to the student body on Wednesday.
As with last semester, Smith will be watching the College’s “surveillance” mechanisms, which include individual COVID-19 testing, daily health monitoring and the testing of Gambier’s wastewater, in order to determine if a change in plans is needed.
“If we were to ever see some trends in those mechanisms, I think we would absolutely, for the sake of campus safety, consider extending the quiet period,” Smith explained.
Despite the increase in positive tests, the College has decided that students are still free to eat inside Peirce Dining Hall after receiving two negative tests, and opened Peirce for in-person dining on Monday. However, the administration has not been enforcing this two-negative-test restriction, apparently relying on an unspoken honor code to ensure that students dining indoors are not in quarantine.
Even so, Bonham says, the reopening of Peirce has been successful. “Students are complying well with our expectations around navigating Peirce and eating within the facility,” she noted. “So we were really compelled by the arguments that were set forth by several students who were advocating for an earlier open to in-person dining.”
However, not everyone was as optimistic about Peirce’s reopening. In fact, many students and families were worried enough to reach out to Bonham, expressing concerns about self-quarantine enforcement and quarantined students picking up meals from Peirce Dining Hall. In response, Bonham cited mental health concerns as a reason for this decision, as well as the difficulty of monitoring students’ whereabouts.
“Requiring quarantined students to remain in their residence halls is a practice we do not plan to pursue,” Bonham wrote in response to one parent, “given the potential impact on those students’ mental health” along with the challenge of enforcement.
Yet, students who have been in quarantine face a predicament, since going to Peirce is the only way to get their meals. Students in quarantine must enter the servery to collect their food, unless a friend or roommate offers to do so for them.
Students have expressed confusion about the College’s general self-quarantining policy and how they would be notified if they were exposed. Students also are still unsure about how long they should expect to remain in quarantine and what qualifies as “close contact” in the context of shared living.
Smith explained that quarantine protocols have not changed since last semester: Students who have had close contact with a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 case will be notified by the Health and Counseling Center, advised to self-isolate for 10-14 days in their places of residence and then will be tested on their 10th day of quarantine.
Smith also added that whether or not people living with students who have tested positive are “close contacts” will be determined on a case-by-case basis. The variation, he explained, depends on students’ level of adherence to COVID-19 precautions. Students who have been exposed to their housemates or roommates may not be considered close contacts if they have been strictly following COVID-19 prevention strategies — such as wearing masks — inside their residence spaces.
Students have also wondered whether or not they should attend in-person classes if they are in quarantine, and, as a result of their confusion, some have done so. Smith said that anyone who has been exposed should not attend any in-person classes, and that students who have done so would be subject to disciplinary action.
Despite potential issues with the College’s quarantine policy, Smith still remains confident that the semester will run smoothly. “We’ve done this successfully for one semester, and I really think we can do it for a second,” he said.
Latest updates on the pandemic can be found at Kenyon’s COVID-19 Dashboard.