Before I can head to campus, I have to answer two questions every day.
“Are you experiencing new or worsening onset of any of the following: fever, cough, shortness of breath?”
“None,” I select.
“Are you experiencing new or worsening onset of any of the following: chills, vomiting, sore throat, diarrhea, loss of smell or taste, muscle pain?”
“None,” I select again.
“Thank you for submitting your daily health check!”
Like clockwork, I answer those questions every day in Arizona State University’s mobile app from my on-campus apartment. It’s one of the many Covid-19 measures my school has put in place since the start of this year’s fall semester. I’m not sure how effective it is at stopping the spread of coronavirus, but I have to do it every day.
This is my last semester of graduate school at Arizona State, where I am earning my master’s degree in mass communication from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
I’m just one of 130,000 undergraduate and graduate students around the United States trying to get an education this semester. It’s a struggle for many since college campuses have been designated Covid hotspots due to college students ignoring protocols and spreading the virus. As of September, CNN reported that college campuses had over 40,000 positive cases across all 50 states.
My university is one of the few schools that decided to have in-person classes. About 85% of classes are in-person, according to an ASU representative. However, most are hybrid, meaning you can choose to attend online.
Like many universities across the country, ASU was not immune to the coronavirus. The main Tempe campus, in which 52,000 students enrolled for the fall semester, has had over 1,000 cases, according to reports from the school.
My program is based at the downtown Phoenix campus, which has about 11,000 enrolled students this fall. Unlike the Tempe campus, the downtown campus has only had a couple dozen cases.
There have not been any official announcements about why the Tempe campus has a higher percentage positivity rate compared to the downtown campus. However, from my observations on the Tempe campus, there are groups of students just off campus that don’t wear masks and hold large gatherings. There is also only one dorm downtown where students are living in close quarters, with a security officer watching the entrance, whereas the Tempe campus has numerous dorms with more entry points.
In-person class experience
From my personal experience, when health and safety guidelines are followed, it’s possible to hold in-person classes.
I have one in-person class, which is the Cronkite News immersive newsroom program that I attend on Tuesdays and Thursdays for eight hours a day. There are many protocols that must be followed in order to attend that class.
To begin with, the day before I arrive each day, I am assigned to a computer desk that is socially distanced from other students. I can only use that computer and I must sanitize it before and after using it.
Anytime I am on campus, inside or outside, I am required to wear a face mask. The only exceptions are for eating outdoors or when I am anchoring our weekday student news show on Tuesdays. And during that, I am at least 6 feet away from others.
I also use new camera equipment from the school so I can stay 6 feet away from sources when reporting in the field. Instead of traditional lavalier mics, I now use a microphone on a stand that I place near the source.
When the pandemic first canceled in-person learning in March, students were not allowed to go out into the field to cover stories. I expected that to be the case this semester, but Cronkite has loosened its grip on that rule — so long as face masks are worn and social distancing guidelines are followed. In addition, sources have to be wearing face masks or the footage cannot be used.
Since field reporting opened up to students, I’ve taken portraits of individuals who have had Covid-19, attended a personal protective equipment donation event hosted by the City of Phoenix and gone on an overnight trip to report on the Navajo Nation’s experience with the virus. Anytime I go out into the field, I bring extra face masks that I pay for myself for sources who may not have one.
Free Covid-19 testing on campus
Something that sets ASU apart is its free saliva-based coronavirus tests. Students can get free, nearly unlimited testing on campus. I get tested at least once a week, sometimes two, just to be safe. It’s optional to get tested, although the university does randomly select people to get tested every day. Unlike the nasal swab, it’s completely painless.
The testing is done at a building at the downtown campus. To collect the saliva, I spit into a straw that’s in a vial. Once I reach the minimum amount needed, I sanitize the seat I sat in along with the vial itself before turning it in. Results come in 24-48 hours, and I’ve found it takes closer to the 24-hour mark.
I follow health and safety protocols in the rest of my life, so I have never felt I needed to get a coronavirus test. I don’t go to parties or go to gatherings of more than 10 people. I also wear a mask when leaving my on-campus apartment to go in public. My roommates and I agreed to limit the number of guests we have over. I also opt for takeout most of the time and eat outdoors whenever possible.
Outside of academics, school has changed dramatically.
The university hosts hundreds of in-person social events every year, from welcome week festivals to evening guest speaker lectures. Those are understandably canceled or moved online.
Pre-Covid, I would normally attend multiple events per week. Now, I’m so burned out from required Zoom calls that I don’t have the energy to attend optional ones.
It’s eerily quiet walking the once bustling Taylor Mall, which is the main walkway on the downtown campus, and heading to and from class every day in empty hallways. A weekday flow of students now looks like a pre-pandemic weekend crowd or even smaller.
The dining hall, despite claims from the ASU administration that there would still be a wide variety of high-quality food, has been a disappointment. About half the options are offered compared to last year, and much of what is offered has been sitting out for some time.
All food is packaged in reusable to-go containers and come with plastic utensils and a small to-go cup. Everything, including the drink, must be filled by an employee. (This is a small price to pay for staff and student safety.)
An ASU representative I spoke with said the dining experience is different and can be less satisfying. Campus officials, the spokesperson also said, have heard complaints about the food, but costs are actually higher this year with all the additional to-go materials needed.
While the university has implemented many safety measures, there is still some way to go.
The school calculates its positivity rate based on the total population of students or staff, not the portion of the population who has taken the test. That causes the percentages to be artificially low.
When asked about its reporting choice, the ASU representative said that the scientists they’re working with believe that calculating the positivity rate based on the entire population gives a more accurate representation of the risk factor to individuals within the community.
Despite some of ASU’s shortcomings, I am grateful to be able to take in-person classes and get free coronavirus testing. If I have to put up with rubbery omelets and Zoom social events in order to keep everyone safe, so be it.