On Friday, Sept. 3, the College sent a news bulletin to the Kenyon community announcing expanded COVID-19 testing and additional COVID-19 guidelines in an effort to gauge the extent of the current outbreak on campus.
In line with the plan provided in the Sept. 3 email, the College tested symptomatic students at a stand-alone clinic from 11:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 4. The College also implemented mandatory baseline testing for all students between Sept. 8 and Sept. 13, and will again offer tests to symptomatic students by appointment at the Cox Health and Counseling Center after baseline testing has concluded.
There are 66 total student COVID-19 cases, 57 of which are currently active, according to Associate Provost and COVID-19 Steering Committee Chair Drew Kerkhoff, who revealed updated numbers on Wednesday evening during a town hall for Kenyon families. Kerkhoff said 44 of these students will have completed their 10-day isolation period by the end of the week. There are also five active employee cases, bringing the total number of employee positives to 10 for the semester.
Kenyon’s COVID-19 Dashboard — which, as of Wednesday, has not been updated to reflect Kerkhoff’s recent numbers — only shows a total of 62 student positives and 53 active student cases.
During the town hall, Kerkhoff noted that 96% of Kenyon students are fully vaccinated and that less than 1%, only 16 students, have received vaccination exemptions. The other 3% are either partially vaccinated or have not yet had their vaccination records verified. Kerkhoff also said that 76% of employees are fully vaccinated.
This increase represents a continued, but slowed, rise in the number of cases on campus compared to Wednesday of last week, when the Collegian reported there were 35 confirmed COVID-19 cases.
In addition to testing all students, the College also made the decision to switch Peirce to a takeout-only dining system for the foreseeable future, and encouraged students to gather in masked groups of 10 or fewer both indoors and outdoors. This switch may have contributed to the steady decline in cases over the course of this past week, according to Kerkhoff. He said he expects that decrease to continue, yet acknowledged that there will still be positive cases appearing on campus throughout the year.
In the news bulletin, the College addressed the fact that the switch to testing the entire campus was largely due to student outcry about the lack of testing available to students. “Many students remain keenly and understandably concerned,” the bulletin read. “For that reason, we are making the following changes to our COVID protocols to enhance the availability of testing and protect our capacity to care for the community.”
Students were not the only members of the community concerned about testing. Last week, Professor of Biology and Chair of the Wastewater Testing Subcommittee of the Public Health Working Group Joan Slonczewski explained that some faculty members warned the COVID-19 Steering Committee of a possible outbreak before the semester even began. According to Slonczweski, 50 members of Kenyon’s faculty signed a letter sent to the committee before students arrived on campus, urging the College to test students.
Although the College ultimately decided to implement baseline tests for students following student and faculty outcry, Director of Health and Counseling Chris Smith stood by the initial decision not to test asymptomatic, vaccinated individuals upon their return to campus. “The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)] and local public health guidance continue to recommend that vaccinated and asymptomatic populations not be tested,” Smith wrote in an email to the Collegian. “However, we know that many on campus have been unsettled by the rise in positive test results. By providing baseline testing, we can ensure that everyone is receiving the same kind of test, with as much accuracy as possible, and results reported the same way.”
While the College’s COVID-19 testing policy is still evolving, the decision to forego return-to-campus testing for arriving students was not uniform among peer Ohio institutions, including Denison University and Oberlin College. The emphasis on testing only symptomatic students — while recommended by the CDC and Knox Public Health (KPH) — is only one of many testing strategies institutions have employed to control the spread of COVID-19.
When asked why the College decided against testing students upon arrival, Smith explained that entry testing for vaccinated students would have been ineffective if it had not been “coupled” with an initial quiet period, like those instituted at the beginning of the last two semesters. He also explained that the College had hoped to begin the academic year without a quiet period.
Kerkhoff similarly suggested testing would have been an incomplete solution, but for another reason: During a meeting between the COVID-19 Steering Committee and Student Council, he suggested that testing everyone upon arrival would have “push[ed] up against the limits of what [the College] was able to respond to.”
In addition to the new testing regulations and revised safety guidelines, the bulletin also outlined updated guidelines for quarantining and isolation. Asymptomatic, fully vaccinated students who are close contacts to positive students, are still permitted to attend classes in-person, take part in athletics and participate in other in-person extracurricular activities “on a case-by-case basis,” according to the email.
However, symptomatic students who are awaiting test results are now being told to quarantine in their rooms. Those who test positive will be transferred either to Kenyon’s dedicated isolation housing at Weaver Cottage and the Pines, or to one of the 20 rooms conditionally available at the Comfort Inn in Mount Vernon. However, due to a lack of available isolation housing, the College is asking some positive students — both symptomatic and asymptomatic — to isolate in their residence halls, in some cases with their roommates.
Students were also strongly encouraged to leave campus and isolate themselves at home in order to preserve housing capacity, if they were able. Yet, sending students home to isolate contradicts CDC guidelines, which stress that people who have been exposed to COVID-19, who are waiting for COVID-19 results, or who have tested positive for the virus should not travel.
However, Smith stood by the decision to have students travel home to self-isolate. “Knox Public Health and Kenyon have always supported students completing their isolation at home, as students often recover best in a familiar space and with connection to loved ones,” he said. “If they do not feel well enough to travel and cannot travel in a private vehicle, they are encouraged to complete their isolation at Kenyon.”
Darien Byrum ’22, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday, Sept. 6, drove eight hours home to North Carolina, where she will self-isolate until Sept. 11. Byrum said she received an email from Smith over two hours after she learned about her positive test result, instructing her to self-isolate in her room. However, she said she explained to Smith that because she lives in a triple room in a North Campus Apartment, she was concerned about transmitting the virus to her roommates. In response, Smith suggested that she isolate at home because there were no available isolation rooms.
“[Smith] basically said that [isolating at home] was my only option,” Byrum said. She also explained that she only felt comfortable driving to isolate at home because she wasn’t experiencing severe symptoms and because her mother had already planned to be out of town.
Smith also said that there are no additional beds in Knox County available for isolation housing, and that KPH recommended students, even those with roommates, isolate in their rooms, “just like family members in the same household.”
The College’s next steps will be determined after they compile the baseline testing data, according to Smith.
So far, the College has no plans to switch to hybrid or remote instruction, nor does the College foresee the need to cancel fall break, Family Weekend or Thanksgiving vacation, according to Kerkhoff. “At this point, we’re planning on a full academic calendar,” he said.
In the same vein, President Sean Decatur remained hopeful and insisted that the spirit of Kenyon is still intact. “By no means do I want to minimize the impact that the larger pandemic or the impact of the past week has had on all our students, but I will say [that] if you are walking outside on campus midday on any day in the past week, there is still a vibrancy and energy on campus, students are out and about,” he said. “The jazz band was playing on the Rosse Hall steps earlier this afternoon at lunch and people were eating outside. There are folks who are around and engaged.… The spirit of campus is far from broken.”