Less than 10 minutes into Northwest’s latest Board of Regents meeting Sept. 3, one that stretched on for close to two hours in the third floor ballroom of the J.W. Jones Student Union, Regent Jason Klindt asked a question.
Klindt, a 1999 graduate of Northwest who joined the Board of Regents in 2018, had seen the latest COVID-19 headlines from around the United States, and more importantly, the latest advice from Anthony Fauci, who warned colleges across the country on NBC’s “Today” show Sept. 2 not to send students home amid on-campus outbreaks.
And Klindt, of course, knows Northwest first encourages students who test positive for COVID-19 to isolate or quarantine at home, rather than occupy one of the 38 quarantine or 38 isolation beds the University maintains on campus. So the regent asked a question.
“Do we have more beds that we could offer?” Klindt said, before describing the state of the virus in Nodaway County, where another 23 positive cases were reported Sept. 2 and where there are more than 270 active cases of COVID-19. “It would seem to me that we’re probably — if we wanted to follow CDC guidelines and allow kids to stay on campus while they are in their 10-day period, we don’t probably have enough rooms. Is that right?”
“That’s correct,” said Matt Baker, Northwest’s Vice President of Student Affairs. “We don’t have enough to have everybody who’s quarantined who lives on campus — we don’t have that capacity.”
The University, which welcomed a freshman class of more than 1,200 students on campus last month, has less than 80 beds for those either in quarantine or isolation on campus — a total University President John Jasinski said he’s comfortable with as of now. So Klindt followed-up after hearing Baker’s answer, asking whether the University had the capacity to expand its COVID-19 housing, while 60.53% of the on-campus quarantine beds and 65.79% of the on-campus isolation beds remain available and while 37 on-campus students are infected with COVID-19.
Baker started to shake his head, before Clarence Green, the University police chief and vice president of culture, stood up from the third row of the socially-distanced seating in the ballroom and interjected.
“We do have flex space built in, that — we do have some room availability like in Millikan Hall, and (there’s) some other things we can do to increase that capacity,” Green said.
The moment served as a microcosm of the University's COVID-19 response as a whole, one that’s been agile yet contradicting at times.
On Aug. 21, Jasinksi warned students that Northwest might “soon” send students home if they didn’t begin “adhering to basic mitigation efforts,” but even as the case count both in the county and at the University has ballooned since then — jumping from 83 active cases in the county then to 275 Sept. 2 — there has been no further action.
Jasinski touted Northwest’s transparency in reporting COVID-19-related data and case counts to the public, but the University didn’t make its coronavirus dashboard available to the public until The Missourian asked for the dashboard in a public records request.
And a full month ago, when Jasinski and other leaders from Northwest and Missouri Western State University met with Missouri Gov. Mike Parson Aug. 3, the president emphasized the importance of positive messaging. But the email he sent to students Aug. 21 pinned much of the blame for the COVID-19 outbreak on off-campus gatherings — a sentiment Jasinski repeated in the latest Board of Regents meeting.
“I think, from the Northwest perspective, we’re focused on mitigation measures to make sure that students are doing the right things — and employees and guests — on campus, as well as off campus,” Jasinski said after the meeting. “LIke many other institutions, we’re concerned about what happens off campus, but we can’t play any blame game here.”
Moving forward, Jasinksi said the University is doing what it can to remain agile as a number of students get set to exit quarantine in the coming days and weeks. The University is focused on reducing the number of students in quarantine, he said, while 7.5% of face-to-face seats have moved online in the first few weeks of classes.
Jasinksi said in the meeting that saliva-based COVID-19 tests developed at Washington University in St. Louis will soon be shared with colleges statewide, though the availability and cost of the tests remain unclear, he said. Northwest is set to receive 680 gallons of hand sanitizer from the state after requesting 1,000 gallons, free of charge.
And Jasinski said University leaders are in ongoing talks on how to adapt to the latest guidelines on quarantine, though it’s still not clear if any action will be taken to bring Northwest up to speed with Fauci’s recommendations as cases continue to mount.
“A lot of the guidelines seem to change here and there and so on,” Jasinski said. “We stay abreast of those, we talk about those. Right now, we’re still saying (sending quarantined students home is) the right thing to do.
“We’re gonna monitor it, I guess, is what I would say.”