There has been an increase recently in COVID-19 cases in Winona County, due in part to the return of college students, including those who attend Winona State University. For those who are concerned about how this will affect them, I would like to share with you our thinking and our planning, and provide some insight into what might happen as we move forward.
Why did WSU open? WSU has a mission going back to its founding to prepare the next generation of professionals, and an obligation to taxpayers and tuition-payers to fulfill that mission. While online learning can be effective in many fields, other fields require in-person instruction. One example is nursing—a nursing student cannot become a nurse without experiencing simulation labs and clinical settings. Another is engineering, where students need access to testing labs to experiment with new composite materials. These fields and many others are essential to the health and financial vitality of our region. Another strong consideration for our opening is the local economic impact—each year WSU contributes roughly $450 million to the local economy.
What precautions did WSU take? WSU is following all guidelines from the Minnesota Department of Health and took more precautions than can be listed here. More than half of our courses were put online. We canceled fall sports and other large-scale events. Residence halls were converted to one resident per room wherever possible. We hired a firm specializing in COVID-resistant classroom redesign. We have testing stations in tents across campus. We designated the Tau Center as an isolation and quarantine building. We require everyone to wear masks on campus, and based on my observations, students and employees have done a great job wearing them (despite the recent heat wave). We communicate our safety requirements to students using social media, websites, emails, and signage across campus. These are just a few examples, and you can find more online at wsu.mn/readyforyou. The City, County, and landlords in the Winona Housing Association have been great partners and done their part, too.
Is WSU tracking the spread of the Coronavirus? Yes: closely and carefully. We are working with Winona Health to do testing, and coordinate our reporting with Winona County and the Minnesota Department of Health. Students and employees who have exposure are tested, and those who test positive are placed in isolation. Reporting is not as simple as you might think, however. For example, should we report students who study online and have never come to campus, some in states far away? We are working with the State of Minnesota to ensure that our reporting is clear and consistent, and provides an accurate depiction of community health.
How will WSU keep the public informed? We’ve made lots of information available to the community in the past, including media coverage in print and on the radio, websites, and open forums for the community. We will continue to make data available at our COVID-19 website: winona.edu/covid. There is also a tab on our homepage (winona.edu) that indicates our current campus status. There are four levels, ranging from Level 1 (green) to Level 4 (red). We are currently at Level 2 (yellow).
What might happen? If the infection and exposure rates remain manageable, the university could maintain its current level of openness this fall. We have no plans to open any further. However, if infection and exposure rates begin to strain our resources, we might impose further restrictions and move more courses to online-only. And if we find ourselves at the highest degree of concern—Level 4—we could pivot all courses to online delivery for a period of time or for the rest of the semester.
What can you do? Please model good behavior for our students by following state and local guidelines regarding mask-wearing and physical distancing. This is even more important if you are a business owner and your business is patronized by students. If you see students not wearing masks or physical distancing, and if it feels comfortable for you to do so, feel free to ask them politely to do what’s right. If you’d like more information on our planning and response efforts, please consult the extensive information available on our website. And if you have any questions or concerns, you can contact our community liaison Kendra Weber at 507-457-2949.
I hope this provides the community with useful information about what Winona State has done to keep our students, employees, and community safe during these unprecedented times. We are blessed to be in Winona, and we will do everything we can to keep our community healthy while fulfilling our mission.
Scott R. Olson