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How the University of Kentucky navigated a semester during a pandemic

Posted at 4:38 PM, Nov 25, 2020

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — Students at the University of Kentucky wrapped up a very different fall semester on campus on Wednesday.

Most importantly, the school made it through without an extensive outbreak of COVID-19. There are still virtual final exams, but most students will not return to Lexington until January.

As part of the Rebound Kentucky, LEX 18 is highlighting the struggles facing schools and colleges during the pandemic and the ways they're overcoming.

UK's story begins, as many do, with the first case of COVID-19. It was diagnosed at UK Hospital, and even though the patient was from Cynthiana, the pandemic was already spreading.

UK officials were already monitoring the situation because decisions needed to be made quickly.

On March 9, just three days after the first positive case, UK activated its Emergency Operations Center.

"Well one of the things we realized very quickly was this was not your ordinary emergency," said UK Police Chief Joe Monroe.

The first priority was to find UK students studying abroad.

"We had to bring back these 90-plus students back before their flights were canceled," said Chief Monroe.

In the following days, the campus emptied out and effectively shut down. A reality of zooms set in and faculty pivoted their entire lesson plan within days.

Courtney Wheeler, a senior now, was inaugurated as student body president in April virtually.

"I joked with friends that I had running shorts on and a blazer," said Wheeler.

Even before she officially took over the office, she had jumped into being an advocate for her thousands of classmates.

As the focus of the school turned toward the fall semester, Wheeler had no doubt she wanted to be in Lexington.

"For us, returning meant a lot to me. Returning to a place that students could call home. That they felt supported, that they had their resources and the needs that they would need during their time here at the university," said Wheeler.

With input from departments across the university, the official campus playbook laid out an August return with mandatory mask-wearing and daily screenings.

In just weeks, thousands of students would be coming back to Lexington and packing on-campus dorms. That's not ideal in a once-in-a-century pandemic.

"But again, we looked at it through the lens of students first, safety first, well-being first," said UK Treasurer Penny Cox, who coordinated the housing plan.

Students living on campus would have their own bedroom, and only two maximum shared a bathroom. Two residence halls were also designated as isolation dorms for those who test positive.

As everyone returned to Lexington, there was mandatory entry testing.

"Everybody getting on board as one UK has been absolutely incredible," said Dr. Bob DiPaola, dean of the College of Medicine.

The staff inside the still-operating Emergency Operations Center continues to monitor testing sites and works to ensure a safe learning environment.

"Whether that's physical security, emotional security, or basic needs," said Chief Monroe.

He says the urgency they face in March has slowed, but not the diligence.

"If you look at our testing numbers, we are much better off than a lot of other places are," said Chief Monroe.

Chief Monroe compares the EOC to air traffic control, while the staff at the newly-created Health Corps coordinates the boots on the ground.

Health Corps is headquartered inside an old seminary off Limestone. When a positive test comes in, the 50-plus member staff springs into action.

"First priority is notifying, isolating, and contact tracing. Second priority following that contact tracing is quarantining high-exposure contacts," said Lance Poston, co-manager of Health Corps.

Those steps are typical of any state health department. But what Poston and other officials say sets UK apart is the wrap-around service to students who test positive.

"If a student's in isolation or quarantine and they need with their WiFi, if they have prescriptions they can't get to, and they need help doing that," said Dr. Kirsten Turner, Vice President of Student Success.

Dr. Turner says counselors have maintained an in-person footprint but have expanded teleservices. She says many students prefer virtual appointments because you don't have to worry about social distancing measures.

"Because they're not wearing masks. And so much of our communication happens without facial expressions and with our full body in terms of communicating," said Dr. Turner.

The return to campus was accompanied by risk. UK officials say COVID-isolation capacity reached a high mark of 44% back on September 2.

But the number was usually much lower. According to the university's COVID-19 dashboard, there were less than 20 students in isolation on campus during the final week of in-person instruction, and capacity was around 10%

Dr. DiPaola says targeted testing helped isolate any potential spreads, which included looking at wastewater inside buildings.

"We would then go into that residential dorm and test the individuals that resided there," said Dr. DiPaola.

While the pandemic has no end in sight. November 25 marks the end of in-person classes for the fall semester.

Wheeler, the energetic student body president, says she's also looking forward to recharging and relaxing.

"I think that it's important for students to think about what they need and take care of their needs," said Wheeler.

University President Dr. Eli Capilouto spent the final weeks reminding students to fight off COVID fatigue, and to bring good habits back home.

"Wear a mask, keep your distance, you know, wash your hands. Think that way," said Dr. Capilouto.

Dr. Capilouto encouraged students to get tested one last time for COVID-19 before leaving to make sure they weren't bringing the virus with them.

He also encouraged students to hold their heads up high and to be proud of doing their part

"I want our students to look back at this unprecedented time in history, and to be able to look at themselves and tell their children and grandchildren, 'you know I did my part in a difficult time in our country's history,'" said Dr. Capilouto.

This year will go down in the university's history books, but also the financial books.

Dr. Capilouto says one lesson learned is that the fragmented public health infrastructure has made the fight more difficult and that a modernized system is needed across the board.

"I bet we've spent $30 million to keep our campus safe. Is it worth it? Yes, I think the dividends are immeasurable in many ways," said Dr. Capilouto.

As students return home for final exams, there is one lingering question: was this a successful semester?

"It might not be able to be measured in a statistic or a data point, but there are so many of those of that spirit of not acquiescing and helping your fellow person, that it's hard not to say it's not been a worthwhile community to be a part of," said Dr. Turner.

Dr. Turner did find one statistic, pointing to midterm grades which she says are similar to past years despite the obstacles.

More importantly, the campus reached the November 25 milestone without a fall shutdown.

The focus turns toward a safe January return with re-entry testing. By the spring, the university is hoping to execute its vaccine plan staff members are already working on.