One week in, Macalester stresses community commitment to keep case count low

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A second wave of COVID-19 testing occurred this week in the Leonard Center. Photo by Malcolm Cooke ’21.

Estelle Timar-Wilcox, News Editor

Over the last month, colleges and universities across the country have held first days of school unlike any others. Some returned to class entirely remotely. Some universities — including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and James Madison University — welcomed students back to campus only to send them home again after widespread outbreaks. 

After the first week of remote classes and a round of asymptomatic testing, Macalester has not seen any large outbreaks. The initial testing found two confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 — both students live off campus and self-isolated at home. 

Another two students, identified through contact tracing efforts as having been potentially exposed to the virus, are quarantining off-campus. 

Special Assistant to the President and Director of COVID Operations Paul Overvoorde is cautious to put too much stake in the low numbers so far. 

“I don’t want things having gone relatively smoothly to allow us to let up on the fact that we still live in a community where there is a lot of coronavirus circulating,” Overvoorde said. “Continued attention to these details and having individuals participate in that community commitment continues to be really important.” 

Although Macalester’s case count is low, Minnesota’s numbers have remained steady; the state has seen a slight increase in the past week from the seven-day average recorded two weeks ago.  Some college campuses have quickly emerged as hotspots, including Winona State, Minnesota State University Moorhead and Concordia College

Despite the caution, Overvoorde credited the smooth first week to students following social distancing and health guidelines outlined in the community commitment. Overvoorde noted that, with some exceptions, students on campus have mostly been following that commitment.

“We’ve demonstrated that coming together is something that doesn’t lead to the worst case scenario that many people might have envisioned,” Overvoorde said. “But that movement forward is only going to be as strong as a continued commitment. As soon as things break down, there’s still… the opportunity for things to change pretty quickly.” 

President Suzanne Rivera delivered a similar message in a video emailed to the campus community on Wednesday, Sept. 9. In it, Rivera thanked students on campus for sticking to the community commitment. 

“It is very important that we all stay the course,” Rivera said. “Just because we’ve had a few good weeks of testing results does not mean that we can let down our guard. Staying vigilant about our public health practices keeps everyone safer.”

Macalester will have a new snapshot of coronavirus on campus once the second round of asymptomatic testing results is reported this weekend. Students, staff and faculty are completing those tests this week. 

With those numbers in mind, the college may start to open up more opportunities for in-person activities after the quiet period ends. 

Rivera noted in her video that the college is making space on campus for professors to hold classes outside. She said she plans to share a more detailed update on those plans early next week. 

Overvoorde said the college will be monitoring a range of conditions as it considers inviting more students back to campus for module two. Macalester plans to examine its own COVID-19 case numbers, county and state data and the campus’s capacity to handle illnesses circulating in the community.

“So much of what’s needed [is] changes in behavior, and changes in behavior take time and they take a real intentionality,” Overvoorde said. “If anything there’s just that worry that we will grow weary of paying attention.”

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