Positivity rate, hospitalizations will be the metrics of focus during hybrid semester, official says

Students on campus are expected to wear masks in classrooms, buildings and in spaces where social distancing isn't possible. (Dalton Wainscott | Collegian Media Group)

Classes have been in session on campus and online for a week now, but Kansas State has yet to outline the specifics of its gating criteria or the key metrics it plans to use in determining whether it’s safe for classes to continue on campus.

Jeff Morris, vice president for communications and marketing, said K-State should have a public matrix out this week that outlines the number of positive tests and other metrics that will be critical in making those decisions about class modality. The focus, he said, will be on the percent of positivity — how many positives are returned out of every 100 tests — on campus and in the community at-large.

“We know that if we just do campus we’re not going to see the whole picture,” Morris said. “If everybody on campus is following the rules but as soon as they step off campus, [if they are] not following the guidelines, that’s another factor in our decision process.”

So far, several students at K-State have tested positive since the semester began in an outbreak associated with the Phi Delta Theta fraternity, with at least 21 total cases. Throughout the whole county, more than 55 percent of the total positive cases have been documented in people ages 18 to 24.

The university will also be concerned about the local health care system’s capacity to deal with severe cases and possible surges. Another important metric will be the availability of prevention equipment like hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and masks from the university’s stockpile, Morris said.

K-State, who previously said they would be reporting positive cases in students through the Riley County Health Department, will be counting testing statistics from Lafene Health Center on the matrix. It will also include data collected by the Office of Student Life about students who are missing classes because of quarantine or self-isolation procedures.

“It’s going to be the data that we have so we know it may not be complete,” Morris said. “It’s going to be incomplete, it’s going to be the best data that we have.”

Morris said K-State also learned some lessons from the outbreak at K-State Athletics over the summer.

“I think it was a very good lesson in how contagious it is and how you really have to pay attention because it can just very quickly spread within a group of people that are close together,” Morris said. “This stuff can really just sneak in on all of us.”

Universities across the United States are returning to remote learning just days after resuming face-to-face operations following local case surges. Make no mistake, Morris said, K-State could find itself in the same boat if students and the community don’t make the right choices.

Over the weekend, O’Malley’s Alley, an Aggieville bar popular among students, was shut down by the Riley County Health Department for violating multiple city and county health ordinances related to COVID-19 prevention.

“I feel that in most cases we are working together as one to make Riley County a safer place. We want people to feel safe while they are out and to reduce risk as much as possible in all areas,” local health officer Julie Gibbs said in a press release. “Thanks to the businesses who are working toward this goal. I recognize the strain this has put on everyone, and that people and businesses are suffering. The more we can work together to get through this, the quicker we can get back to normal.”

If at any point K-State does need to adjust its face-to-face modality, it wouldn’t have to be all or nothing like it was in the spring, Morris said. Shifting some courses online, but allowing some classes like labs or studios to stay in person might be an option. Temporary suspension of in-person classes could also be possible.

“Our strong bias would be to do everything we can to keep people in class if we can,” Morris said. “I think what we learned is we need to be more nuanced and look at it more on a case-by-case basis.”

My name is Kaylie McLaughlin and I'm the ex-managing editor and audience engagement manager of the Collegian. Previously, I've been the editor-in-chief and the news editor. In the past, I have also contributed to the Royal Purple Yearbook and KKSU-TV. Off-campus, you can find my bylines in the Wichita Eagle, the Shawnee Mission Post and KSNT News. I grew up just outside of Kansas City in Shawnee, Kansas. I’m a senior in digital journalism with a minor in French and a secondary focus in international and area studies. As a third-generation K-Stater, I bleed purple and my goal is to serve the Wildcat community with accurate coverage.