Handling COVID-19 as students return to the University of Alabama system

Jun 23, 2020

An APR News Feature

The University of Alabama system is taking the latest steps this week toward a planned return of students in the fall. A resolution from the board of trustees says at least some students can return to the Tuscaloosa campus starting this week. The university system plans to respond to COVID-19 heading into the fall semester, but some issues may go beyond the classroom.

“We are excited that we’re able to release our campus plan for return to operations for the fall semester,” University of Alabama President Stuart Bell said.

He gathered reporters to deliver a specific message for parents and students planning to return to the capstone during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Our motivation is for this plan, from the get go, is faculty, staff, and students' health, so we’re going to work hard to get there,” he said.

Leaders of the University of Alabama system sat down with healthcare professionals to formulate a plan to deal with the coronavirus when instruction resumes, perhaps in the fall. That includes social distancing, COVID-19 testing for students, faculty, and staff, the wearing of face masks, and a teaching tool APR reported on back in April. APR took listeners to an online film writing class taught by UA instructor Maya Champion. She talked to students while sitting safely in her home near the Tuscaloosa campus. The class joined in by using the ZOOM teleconferencing system on their laptops. We talked with student Montana Maniscalco about it before class began. She thought it would be OK.

Denny Chimes on the Tuscaloosa campus of the University of Alabama
Credit Pixabay

“It’s gonna be odd, it’s gonna be challenging, too,” she said. “Because, me personally, I’m a very hands-on, I need to see it in front of me learner.”

Bell said cameras are being installed in all campus classrooms for online instruction at the University of Alabama. He said students sitting in classrooms, things will look different as well.

“For large classes, let’s say a Monday, Wednesday, and Friday class. We may have…let’s say the class may have 100, we may have 30 who are in class on Monday, another 30 who are in class on Wednesday, and the remaining 40 in class on Friday. But all of them have access to all of the lecture,” he said.

Instruction areas are being reconfigured to promote social distancing with seats being removed, or at least taped off, to keep students at least 6 feet apart. On the subject of face masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Bell said the strategy isn’t to tell students to wear one, but to get them to treat the person next to them like they’re family.

“That is the heart of where we need to get to by the time we get to mid-August, is, we’re all thinking in a way of, looking out for the other person,” Bell said. “It’s about my experience, but if I want to have my experience, I need to make sure the person next to me also is able to have that experience.”

Health care providers are still concerned about how COVID-19 is trending in Alabama. And, they’re not keeping it to themselves.

Credit Pixabay

“People are mixing more. People are letting their guard down. People aren’t wearing masks,” said Dr. Jeanne Marazzo, director of infectious disease at the University of Alabama in Birmingham.

She took to the microphone during a press conference to repeat her advice about the coronavirus. Specifically, she’s worried about long term face to face contact which allows for breathing, sneezing, coughing and other ways COVID-19 appears to be spread.

“If you are within 6 feet of someone for more than fifteen minutes, that’s when that alarm bell should be going off,” Marrazzo said. “That’s not to say if you’re right next to somebody and they cough in your face and run away that you can’t get infected, of course you can.”

That could confirm why Dr. Thomas Weida thinks the hotspots will be off campus, even when in-person classes return to the University of Alabama. Weida practices at University Medical Center in Tuscaloosa. APR talked with him about COVID-19 spread earlier in the month. He echoed Marazzo’s point about where COVID might be a bigger problem.

“Your real hotspots are going to be where people sit without a mask for a longer period of time, and so what’s a classic example of that? Restaurants,” he said.

Weida said one way to make that problem better, is for restaurants and diners to go al fresco.

“You take that seat and put it outside where the air is circulating, the risk goes down,” Weida said. “So, having more open air restaurants would be a good way to reduce transmission compared to an enclosed restaurant.”

Bryant-Denny Stadium at the University of Alabama
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

It bears mentioning that Alabama Public Radio is a service of the University of Alabama. APR took part in a press availability with  Bell that was attended by the Tuscaloosa News and the Crimson White student newspaper. One more topic related to COVID-19 came up as well. Bell said students can expect campus athletics to resume in the fall, including Crimson Tide football, but it works depends on safety not only for the fans but the athletes as well.

“I think it’s going to look different in some way,” Bell said. “I can’t tell you how that is today. But, we know as we’re learning more and more every day, and then as we’re getting together and seeing how do we address that event, how do we address that ability to provide that for our student athletes, that will guide us.”

The process of reopening the University of Alabama campus to in-person is ongoing and changes could come as the fall term draws near. Bell said one encouraging sign is the number of student applications, and it’s not just the young people who appear enthusiastic.

“By and large, I would say the parents want the students to be back the University of Alabama,” Bell said. "So, overall we still have strong, certainly our applications have now, go through a process of application to admit, to housing deposits, to actual orientation numbers, so we have strong numbers as we move through that process.”

The fall term is set to begin on Aug. 19.