With President Jackson and Dr. Frankovich at opposite ends of agreement on in person classes, students caught in the middle feel COVID-19 is inevitable.
As Humboldt State University moves forward with a hybrid fall 2020-21 semester, starting online before transitioning to an in-person format from Sep. 8 until Nov. 6, community leaders are unsure about the future safety of students on campus.
In a recent set of emails between HSU President Tom Jackson and Humboldt County Health Officer Dr. Teresa Frankovich, made available via Freedom of Information Act requests to the Lost Coast Outpost and North Coast Journal, at times the two leaders appeared at odds with how to proceed with the semester.
Frankovich stated concerns with students returning to dorms and classes, mainly that enclosed shared spaces like dorm kitchens and bathrooms presented an increased risk of spreading infection. Frankovich asked for a possible pause to the start of the semester, so that COVID-19 testing labs within the county could properly prepare for the increased influx of new and returning students.
Jackson replied within the same email chain initially with confusion about the timing of the sudden request before attempting to reassure HSU was following all local and state ordinances regarding proper social distancing and safety.
During the Aug. 18 media availability briefing, Frankovich addressed the emails stating “Let me make one thing clear: This is not a case of ‘othering’. It is a case of trying to make safe choices for the entire community in the midst of a pandemic. This is about trying to juggle competing needs for testing resources across skilled nursing facilities, agricultural settings, tribal communities, local public schools, businesses and organizations, and the community as a whole.”
Frankovich also reiterated that the Humboldt County Health Office was still confident in HSU’s plans and ability to handle the situation, praising the HSU planning team for their continued effort.
“I think they’re working on constructing an environment that is as safe as possible considering the pandemic that we’re in,” Frankovich said.
Those plans were put to the test when on Aug. 17, as students began moving into the dorms, a campus-wide email was sent out stating that HSU had it’s first confirmed COVID-19 case.
By the end of the week, two more students and a faculty member tested positive as well, though emails state that the faculty member’s case was not connected to student move-ins.
While the identities of those who tested positive are being withheld for privacy, an email notification sent out on Aug. 20 said “HSU is working closely with Humboldt County Public Health, which will determine whether there are members of the campus community who need to be advised of their contact with affected people.”
Testing will continue for students who have moved in during a fourteen-day quarantine period to ensure safety.
Blake Hefner, a biology major and resident advisor for the College Creek dorms, expressed both concern and hope after reading the initial emails regarding the first confirmed case.
“If they’re willing to bring students during a pandemic, we are going to see how they are going to handle that and how they are going to value our lives,” Hefner said.
Lori Alcantara, a journalism major, said that as soon as she saw the email, she went to show her roommate.
“We were both kinda surprised that it was so quick,” Alcantara said. “At the same time, I feel relieved that they’re keeping track and not just trying to pretend that it isn’t happening.
Alcantara felt comfortable with the idea of in-person classes, trusting the students around her and the university to accept the new social responsibility of sanitizing workplaces and classrooms. Alcantara had one in-person class for the fall semester and stated that the professor had already reached out and reassured students that proper cleaning will occur before students arrive and when they leave.
“I think what will matter then will be everyone’s ability to clean after themselves, use hand sanitizer and wear their masks,” Alcantara said. “I think if everyone could do that… then I’m not particularly worried.”
Frankovich said during her media availability briefing that “…the presence of this case doesn’t change our plan going forward except that we want to make sure we are doing the testing and trying to monitor progress on isolation quarantine should it occur.”
Hefner felt that the cases meant that students had to step up to the occasion and help shoulder the responsibility and pressure.
“It’s a lot of realizing that this is bigger than us as people,” Hefner said. “Moving back means you’re part of a community now, and being part of that community you have to respect the guidelines that are going to take place.”
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