Campus COVID-19 plan doesn’t include data thresholds because it’s more ‘holistic,’ officials say

Face covering signs are present on all entrances and exits on campus. With classes beginning during a pandemic, precautions have been taken in every aspect of campus life. (Dalton Wainscott I Collegian Media Group)

As life resumes amid the ongoing pandemic, many institutions, organizations and schools, like USD 383, have rolled out metrics and thresholds that determine the viability of in-person operations called gating criteria. Kansas State is taking a different approach.

About a week into the semester, K-State did announce key data points — positivity rate, capacity to quarantine students, hospitalizations, case severity and testing availability — that it would be watching to judge the feasibility of face-to-face instruction, but those metrics did not come with thresholds.

That’s intentional, Dr. Kyle Goerl, medical director at Lafene Health Center, said. It’s not that the university is trying to shirk accountability, he said, but that they are taking a different approach to manage the pandemic on campus. There isn’t a specific number of positive cases or a set positivity rate that will automatically return K-State to remote learning and limited operations.

Elliot Young, chief operating officer for university risk and compliance, played an instrumental role in formulating K-State’s reawakening protocol. He said instead of focusing on a set of “alarming” statistics, the university is generally more concerned with its capacity to meet the needs of students.

“That’s why we have the matrix and that’s why we have the indicators. That’s why we have all this stuff — so we can holistically assess the situation and make good decisions,” Young said.

Marley Kay Lowe, senior in communication studies, American ethnic studies and gender, women and sexuality studies, takes exclusively online classes and lives off-campus. Lowe said she’s glad she’s not living in a residence hall or going on campus regularly because she feels the university’s operations plan for the pandemic leaves some things to be desired. For starters, she wishes there was more transparency on decision-making and fewer attempts to assign fault to individual people.

“If we don’t collectively decide to care about each other … we’re going to be [stuck] here forever,” Lowe said.

University officials have a responsibility to be honest with students, she said.

“The responsibility of the administration is to lead and to do more than the bare minimum,” Lowe said.

The conversation about caring for students does include considerations for hospitalization rates, campus illnesses and a handful of other metrics, but more in a big picture approach, vice president for communications and marketing Jeff Morris said.

“If you rely on those [metrics] only, then you pigeonhole yourself and your response,” Goerl said. “No decent plan should be built around [just positivity rate and new cases]. … They’re only part of the decision making process on campus.”

For K-State’s plan to work, there needs to be flexibility, Goerl said.

K-State has already changed part of its plans. For example, before the semester began, Goerl and other university officials indicated that there wasn’t a clear plan to roll out surveillance testing — randomized asymptomatic screenings — outside of K-State Athletics. The plan at the time was to focus on testing students and faculty who were known contacts of positive cases or those who had symptoms. Recently, however, K-State implemented an expanded strategy to test 10 percent of on-campus residents randomly.

Though mostly concerned with the whole picture, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t cause for concern a few weeks ago when the on-campus positivity rate neared 27 percent, Young said.

“I don’t think it’s surprising that the number of cases and the percent positive rate, both on campus and in the community, are alarming,” Young said.

Bringing 20,000 people back to town all at once is certain to cause a handful of outbreaks and an increase in overall cases, but Goerl said that spike should start to slow down soon.

New cases and the overall positivity rate have started to decline. On campus, K-State documented a positivity rate of about 17 percent in the week of Aug. 31. Last week, Riley County added 173 total new positive cases of COVID-19, a marked decline from previous weeks where the county added several hundred new cases.

There are limits to K-State’s ability to control students off-campus as well as account for all positive cases associated with the university, Morris said. For one, K-State has limited jurisdiction over independent student organizations like fraternities and sororities, but there’s also no mechanism to count students who were tested outside of Lafene.

That’s why it is also important for the university to include community statistics and capacities in its decision-making matrix, Morris said.

“We know that if we just do campus we’re not going to see the whole picture,” Morris said previously. “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.”

If the situation continues to level-out locally and the community continues to engage in good prevention behaviors, like social distancing and mask-wearing, the expectation is that K-State will make it to Thanksgiving Break without having to pivot the reawakening plan too much, Goerl said.

“We spent all summer preparing the plans and the policies to address a lot of these issues, and where we sit right now, things, by and large are in good shape,” Young agreed.

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.