Ahead of Monday’s reopening, leaders at Western Kentucky University have their fingers on the launch button for what’s being called the Big Red Restart. The campus is coming back to life after in-person learning was canceled due to the coronavirus.
"Did you guys get everything out of the car?," asks Anna Tranter. "The refrigerator? What about the microwave? Oh, it's right there."
Tranter is moving into a residence hall at WKU, a rite of passage for thousands of incoming freshmen. She’s from the northern Kentucky town of Edgewood, and plans to major in fashion merchandising. Her family is helping her move into her room on the 6th floor of Minton Hall.
“I brought clothes, pillows, my makeup, some snacks, a laundry hamper," she points out. "I brought a little plant to see if I can keep it alive. There’s so much stuff I don’t know what to do with it.”
Her mom, Laura Tranter, is helping make the bed while Anna hangs clothes in her closet. While leaving a child at college is never easy, parents have an additional worry this school year: COVID-19. But Tranter says she feels confident Anna will be safe.
"As a mother, you're always looking out for their health and well-being," Tranter told WKU Public Radio. "It's think it's innate, but it appears Western is really trying to prepare in the way they need to, to bring the kids on campus."
Anna is one of more than 14,000 students returning to WKU for the fall semester. The coronavirus has upended the normal way of life on campus, even the way students are moving into dorms. One of the ways the university is limiting crowds is by using a drop-and-go method for moving in students.
“My roommate already moved in without me. We’re not really doing it together," Anna Tranter said. "She’ll meet me here later.”
Despite the prospect of communal living, Tranter said she's not too concerned about her safety on campus.
“I think with the masks and the safety precautions of social distancing and handwashing, I’m too worried about it," she said. "We’re also doing hybrid classes, so I’ll be doing some classes online instead of in-person, or a mixture of both online and in-person, so I think that will help as well.”
University leaders have worked since the onset of the virus to resume campus operations and in-person instruction. Masks, plexiglass barriers, hand sanitizing stations, and smaller class sizes are just part of WKU’s new look. During his recent online convocation address, President Timothy Caboni called COVID-19 the largest challenge in school history.
“We all are learning to live beside this virus," Caboni said. "It’s not going away until we have a vaccine, and that means for us to be able to continue our lives with some sense of normalcy, we’re going to have to do many things differently.”
But even the best-laid plans are no match for the coronavirus. According to a dashboard on the school’s Healthy on the Hill website, WKU already has at least 206 cases of COVID-19, and that’s before classes have even begun. Students account for 175 of the cases while 31 cases are among faculty, staff and on-campus contractors.
Several other universities in the U.S. are also detecting cases of the coronavirus. The University of Notre Dame in Indiana announced on Tuesday that classes would be remote for the next two weeks. Michigan State and the University of North Carolina have taken similar action after noticing spikes in COVID-19 cases.
Before WKU reopened to students, President Caboni said there was no chance for a completely risk-free environment and there would certainly be COVID-19 cases on campus. He said the school’s job is to identify, isolate, amd contract trace them as quickly as possible. Unlike some universities, incoming WKU students will not be required to get tested before in-person classes start.
A group of freshmen was having lunch this week at the Fresh Food Company on campus. One of them at the table has already had the coronavirus. Jack Leffert of Louisville said he tested positive three weeks ago and quarantined at home.
"Only symptoms I had was a headache and a little shortness of breath," Leffert said.
Because he brings an insider’s perspective to COVID-19, Leffert says he appreciates what the university is doing to help slow the spread of the virus.
“It’s a little bit more real to me, I guess, so I’ll take a little bit more precautions," stated Leffert.
On-campus testing is available to faculty, students and staff free of charge through WKU’s health services center. The school also has plans in place for quarantining individuals who test positive for COVID-19. As WKU resumes classes in-person on Monday, the school's coronavirus experiment is about to get tested.