Social distancing, mask wearing and sanitizing: these three concepts, once innocuous and relatively unknown in the public sphere, have suddenly come to the forefront of Franciscan University of Steubenville’s attention in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To say that the effects of the pandemic and the three aforementioned concepts have been life-changing for countless numbers of people around the world is not an exaggeration.
Franciscan was certainly not exempt from the effects of the pandemic, and had to send all students home in the middle of the spring semester along with cutting short the Austria program in the spring and cancelling it for the fall semester.
However, after an entire summer of planning, constantly shifting expectations and national uncertainty, the faculty and staff at Franciscan were able to welcome students back to campus just two weeks ago.
While Franciscan is now alive with an unprecedented number of students, there is also an unprecedented situation each and every student is currently experiencing on campus. Social distancing, mask wearing and sanitizing is now a part of daily life at the University.
These regulations — which almost every student is now very familiar with and which include wearing a face covering unless actively eating, maintaining 6-foot social distancing whenever possible and not entering other residence halls — may or may not have the unanimous approval of everyone on campus. Nevertheless, the university’s leaders are committed to keeping the semester running for the sake of the students.
“Honestly … I’m willing to do whatever,” said Dean of Students Matthew Schaefer, sitting outside the J.C. Williams Center on a bright, sunny day while maintaining the 6-foot social distancing standard. “I will do whatever to stay together. Let’s go for it.”
Having played an integral role with other university leaders in reopening campus, Schaefer related the challenges they faced in bringing back students to Franciscan.
“The biggest thing is that it was a moving target,” said Schaefer. “Every other day things were changing, state mandates were changing, what other schools were doing were changing. So we were watching the scope of it, and what we thought we were going to put in place in … May was very different from what we thought in June, was very different from what we thought in July.”
Despite the constant changes, Schaefer said he was committed to both safety and practicality.
“Where we came down on it, essentially,” said Schaefer, “became how do we let students have a fulfilling experience on campus as best we can while at the same time trying to remain … as practical as possible so that students actually follow the guidelines?”
Even though all the guidelines play an important role in keeping students together on campus for the semester, Schaefer admitted that one in particular was especially important.
“Honestly, it’s probably the one we struggle with the most, which is the mask wearing,” said Schaefer. “The biggest reason for this is because that actually dictates … a lot of who goes into quarantine if someone has a positive test. If you’re hanging out with someone and you’re wearing a mask, and one of those people within that group has a positive test, those other people in the group don’t actually have to go into quarantine.”
Schaefer asked, “(If) I’m going to hang out with this group for an hour, is it worth me wearing that mask for an hour so that I don’t have to quarantine … and be away from everything for two weeks?”
“I think right now it’s time for students to be more diligent, maybe even more than they were right when they came back,” Schaefer said when asked about what life on campus may look like in the future. “There’s that … internal thing where you see your friends who you haven’t seen since March, some of them since December if they were in Gaming.”
“We saw a lot of it when we first got back and students are hugging and just want to be together. We totally get that, and we want that too,” Schaefer said.
The university is closely monitoring the number of cases on campus and plans to use that data to make decisions in the near future, according to Schaefer.
“If we were cautious … and so we got to the point where we had a week or two go by without any cases on campus, I think we would relook at some of the regulations that have been going on and see where we’re at with those,” Schaefer said.
“We might say OK, let’s give it another week, or we might say … you no longer have to wear masks at this location or we can now do larger events outside because we’ve been able to slow the spread so much.”
Schaefer also mentioned the Coronavirus Dashboard on Franciscan’s website, where students can view regular updates concerning COVID-19 statistics on campus. So far, six residential students have been positively diagnosed, out of 208 that were tested.
In regards to students’ motivation to keep following the guidelines, Schaefer recognized that “with college students, they don’t always respond to a motivator that is safety.”
“There are certain ones who would,” said Schaefer. “But for other students the biggest motivation is to be with one another. That continues to be a motivation for a lot of us on campus, to say, ‘If I got COVID, I would be okay and it probably wouldn’t be the end of my world.’ But at the same time, it could be a more difficult situation for the University.”
“If we’re all in this together and saying, ‘Let’s do this, at the very least … to stay with one another on campus,’ I think that’s not a bad thing,” he said.