The fall semester has been one of unprecedented times with COVID-19 adding an extra hurdle to overcome during the first half of the school year.
Prior to the start of the year, Gonzaga faculty and staff worked around the clock with special advisors, like the COVID-19 Task Force and the Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD), to ensure that students could come back safely for the fall semester.
Cassie Woodworth, a junior nursing student, said that she thought GU handled the pandemic well this semester.
“I think compared to other universities, GU did a good job," Woodworth said in an email. "As a nursing student, I was very anxious about how the semester was going to go. Gonzaga having free testing on campus was a good choice for the university. I think their COVID newsletters were a good way to keep transparency with the student body.”
Director of Housing and Residence Life, Jon Wheeler, said that the staff worked on COVID-19 planning from March until August.
But planning can only do so much and Wheeler said the year started out “bumpy.”
“You never really know how things are going to go for sure until students arrive on campus and you have your first cases come up,” Wheeler said.
GU Housing and Residence Life had reserved 40 beds for students who would need to be in isolation and 95 beds for students who would need to quarantine throughout the semester between two dorm style housing options: Cushing and Chardin.
As September started, so did the number of COVID-19 cases, on campus and off. With a total number of recorded on-campus COVID-19 cases coming in at 421.
“We had a small number at first, in early September, but then we had a large group of students in quarantine and isolation about mid-September,” Wheeler said. “We learned a lot and it came through the bumps in the road, the experiences students were having and the feedback we were getting from students regarding what their experience was.”
Meeting with students and their parents led the Housing and Residence Life staff to reevaluate the quarantine and isolation conditions for students who must do so, pivoting to make sure that students could have the best care.
“I would say since the beginning of October it has been a fairly well-oiled machine,” Wheeler said.
Some concerns students brought to the attention of Housing and Residence Life was the need to have access to the outdoors, food variety, access to their rooms to get items they had to leave behind and academic needs.
Over the course of the semester the food variety increased from a small menu to one with options to accommodate all students.
“Essentially they could get what they wanted; they just needed to heat it up in the mico-fridge (microwave with a fridge attached) we provided for them,” Wheeler said.
GU hired a hospitality team that was responsible for making goodie bags full of things that might help students get through their quarantine.
“The president wanted to try to add some niceties to the students' experience, so they would get a gift bag, they would get a card from the president, they would get some items that would hopefully divert their attention,” Wheeler said.
From the mind to the physical aspect, the overall health of students was evaluated.
The Student Involvement and Leadership department, led by Colleen Vanderboom, developed many different ways GU could cater to students in quarantine.
“We were able to do some more targeted activities for students, where they would exercise their mind and where they could actually have structured time outside of the building,” Wheeler said. “They were offered a slate of activities in which they could choose from.”
Some of the activities students could choose from include yoga, mind games and scheduled time outside of the building to get some fresh air and move their bodies.
Wheeler acknowledged that isolation is not fun and it is hard for students to go through this quarantine process for 10 to 14 days.
If a student was put into quarantine and awaiting results in the Ruby River hotel, Cushing or Chardin dorms, then they were expected to not interact with each other in person.
For an on-campus student in isolation, with a positive test result, they were allowed to socialize with each other in person.
“They could leave their rooms and hang out with each other,” Wheeler said. “We put pool tables in the basement, so they could use the pool tables, they could be in the common areas and lounges. They could just be with each other and in some instances they have roommates.”
As the semester went on, the frustration grew among the student body.
“It was frustrating not seeing people wear masks on campus sometimes," Woodworth said. "It is frustrating not seeing some people take this pandemic seriously. Especially since I hear from my clinical instructors about all of the patients they have to take care of dying of COVID everyday.”
Campus security enforced rules, both on-campus and off-campus for student gatherings. Classes switched back and forth between in-person and remote learning.
As GU sports teams begin to play, COVID-19 is forcing them to cancel games. The men’s basketball team was forced to cancel their past four games due to a COVID-19 positive case, according to a news release from Dec. 5.
Looking toward the next semester, Wheeler said they are hoping for some normalcy so they won’t need to reserve spaces for isolation. Woodworth echoed a similar hope.
“As a future nurse and a future COVID vaccine recipient, I hope that students and faculty get the vaccine to protect themselves and others,” Woodworth said.
Moving into the spring semester, Woodworth hopes that GU improves on its COVID-19 testing for students.
“Although they had frequent testing at the beginning of the year, the hours and days of testing slowly decreased throughout the semester,” Woodworth said. “This led a lot of students to go off campus for testing, which means that if they test positive, Gonzaga is not aware of this unless [the student] takes it on themselves to report themselves."
Woodworth said that without GU's awareness of these cases, these students don’t have the guidance and support from case workers. The additional case numbers from off-campus testing facilities, that aren't being accounted for, also causes gaps in GU's data and newsletters sent out to the community.
As of Dec. 12, GU had a total of 11,918 cumulative tests among students and faculty with 263 cumulative positive cases. The overall positivity rate among the GU community was calculated at 1.36 %.