URBANA – As University of Illinois students return to the Urbana campus this month, administrators urge them to remain vigilant as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on.
Campus leaders said during a virtual COVID-19 briefing yesterday that many of the same precautions that were enacted in the fall semester will remain in place during the spring, including mandatory testing, masking and social distancing.
U of I Chancellor Robert Jones reminded students that they need two negative tests prior to the start of the semester, which begins Jan. 25. He said the development of COVID-19 vaccines has provided a light “at the end of this apparently never-ending tunnel.”
“But as we start this semester, I think it’s critically important for all of us to really begin to understand, and to remind each and every one of us, that that light, the end of the tunnel, is still months away, and that we have to really be more vigilant than we were perhaps in the fall to do all those things that we know by now were best practices that help us keep this community safe,” Jones said.
About vaccines, Jones said to “stay tuned” and to check the U of I’s vaccination page for the latest updates. He said the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District doesn’t expect vaccines to be widely available until the spring.
“We are going to be pushing and hope that’s going to be early spring,” Jones said.
Mental health and wellness
Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, Danita Brown Young, said they heard from students via a survey last semester that many experienced mental health and wellness challenges during the fall semester. As a result, Brown Young said they planned to continue hosting online gatherings and face-to-face activities for students, with capacity limits, to ensure they have opportunities to socialize. She said the university had also improved its quarantine and isolation intake protocol, sanitation and turnover processes, and meal delivery program for both those living in university housing and off-campus.
Both Brown Young and Dean of Students, Stephen Bryan, pushed back against claims that students struggled to access counseling services on campus.
“And my colleagues in the counseling center tell me that if a student is in crisis, they will be able to be seen that day,” Bryan said.
Brown Young said the campus increased the number of emergency deans available to support students and extended the hours of the counseling center on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
“A staff member is always here to help our students 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” Brown Young said.
Officials said those who are concerned about the health and safety of a student should call 911 if they think they’re in immediate danger. They also encouraged students and staff to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 217-333-0050 for non-emergency assistance.
Safety and discipline
University of Illinois Police Chief Alice Cary said the department has formed a response, evaluation and crisis help team — REACH for short — to tackle mental health emergencies on campus. She said social workers are embedded with officers to make treatment decisions when responding to such calls. Cary said those experienced a mental health crisis will also be provided wraparound service from community partners “to ensure that our students have access to mental health resources they need and they don’t slip through the cracks.”
Cary said the department has also welcomed two new therapy dogs, named Lollipop and Winston.
“Our students, faculty and staff will be seeing these dogs and their handlers across campus as the semester moves forward. And we hope they can take a moment to interact with the dogs in distress a little bit,” Cary said.
About parties, she said the department will take the same approach it did last semester. When parties are reported, Cary said student patrol officers will ask the host to come into compliance with state COVID-19 guidelines.
“Most of the time this step is effective without any need for police involvement. Unfortunately, sometimes the party hosts do not comply voluntarily. And that’s when our police officers do respond,” Cary said.
She said some of the fines levied against party hosts last semester exceeded $1,300.
Bryan, U of I’s Dean of Students, said students should educate themselves about the guidelines for gatherings. He said his office will reach out to registered student organizations, including fraternities and sororities, to inform them about university expectation for hosting events. Last semester, more than 2,700 students were reported for violating COVID-19 rules, and so far 50 students have been dismissed from the university, and 11 organizations have been sanctioned, according to Bryan.
But Bryan clarified that missing one COVID-19 test is not enough to get thrown out of school.
“Missing one test will not get you dismissed from the university, but a pattern of conduct will,” he said.
Vice Chancellor and Provost Andreas Cangellaris said, based on what happened last semester, and on projections from university researchers, there could be a spike in cases at the beginning of the spring semester. He urged students not to gather, to quarantine, to get tested and to communicate with friends via phone.
“This is a community with one of the lowest positivity rates in the state of Illinois, if not the nation. Contribute to that. Make sure that you do your part because you have the privilege of having access to the test on campus so frequently,” Cangellaris said.
Cangellaris said the U of I’s COVID-19 saliva test is capable of detecting variants of the virus, including the new and particularly infectious variant called B-117. He said they’re on the lookout for it.
“Testing, testing, testing is going to facilitate our progress toward the ultimate goal: normalcy. And I will say then, please stay positive and keep testing negative,” Cangellaris said.
Lee Gaines is a reporter for Illinois Public Media.
Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines