Masks, social distancing and flexible policies a near certainty as KU prepares to reopen its campuses

photo by: Nick Krug/Journal-World File Photo

A bus whirs by as University of Kansas students wait along Jayhawk Boulevard on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016.

Whenever the data surrounding COVID-19 allows the University of Kansas to begin its gradual reopening process, it will have many new safety protocols in place, according to new guidance released Wednesday.

The guidance issued in a message from Chancellor Douglas Girod and Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer says that going forward, social distancing, masks, and regular cleaning of high-touch surfaces will be required every step of the way.

KU will be “flexible to adapt” to the public health crisis, according to the six-page guidance document, which at the same time stresses that the university’s educational mission “cannot be successfully accomplished with excellence in a remote-only manner.”

“Part of our mission is ‘making discoveries that change the world,'” spokesperson Erinn Barcomb-Peterson told the Journal-World in an email. “So many of those discoveries hang on research that must be performed in laboratories and with specialized equipment, which is why we began this process with reopening our research buildings.”

It’s clear that KU leaders want to return to on-campus operations in the fall — Girod and Bichelmeyer first announced a plan to do so on May 1, with a five-step phased plan similar to Gov. Laura Kelly’s plan to reopen Kansas’ economy. Wednesday’s guidance is the first extended communication regarding the reopening of KU’s campuses since that plan was unveiled.

However, the guidance also says the university is still planning for any fall semester scenario — including in-person learning, remote learning or a hybrid version of the two models.

KU just finished its spring semester by operating online-only after health orders related to the pandemic shut down the campus in mid-March. The majority of students in university housing had to collect their belongings and move away from campus after KU’s spring break.

In a change of pace from what occurred this spring, Wednesday’s guidance states that on-campus housing may actually be safer for students than off-campus housing, and that it “makes sense to accommodate as many as possible” in the fall semester.

“On campus housing presents a risk due to the high density of students, but it also presents the opportunity to provide a more controlled and less risky environment relative to off campus housing for many of our students,” the guidance says. “The presence of Resident Advisors, the use of dining services, control of the cleaning protocols for common areas and the relative ease of contact tracing in the residence halls all create a lower risk environment than less controlled settings.”

The guidance notes that procedures may be needed to self-quarantine students who test positive for COVID-19, are exposed to someone else who tested positive or are awaiting test results.

“It is also possible that entire floors or wings may have to undergo self-quarantine while testing occurs,” the guidance says.

If there is another widespread COVID-19 outbreak in the Lawrence area that requires either Douglas County or the state of Kansas to issue another round of stay-at-home orders, students in on-campus housing may need to shelter on campus with plans for dining operations to accommodate such a transition.

KU says in the guidance that it will work with fraternity and sorority houses in the university’s Greek Life system to develop similar processes.

When speaking to the Kansas Board of Regents during its monthly meeting Wednesday, Girod said that going forward, testing for the virus would be a key indicator of how the campus can operate.

Kansas, despite increasing its testing capacity exponentially in the last few weeks, still doesn’t have nearly the testing capacity needed to test a campus of over 30,000 students and staff members, he said.

“We continue to have an inadequate ability to test (people) in our current environment with nobody on our campus,” Girod said.

In KU’s case, COVID-19 testing will likely only occur if individuals show symptoms, rather than testing asymptomatic individuals to track the virus’ spread, Girod said.

Barcomb-Peterson said the university would continue working over the summer to secure the personal protective equipment and cleaning materials necessary if campus operations are to resume in a normal capacity.

“As stated, we can expect our reopening steps to evolve over the course of the summer and fall,” she said. “We will need to adjust as circumstances warrant.”

Contact Conner Mitchell

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