On Tuesday, Feb. 23, the Student Government Association collaborated with the Division of Student Success and Engagement to host a COVID-19 Policy Open Forum. The purpose of this event was to help students understand the policies Messiah University has put in place because of COVID-19 and to provide an opportunity to have their questions answered by a panel.
The event began with a presentation by Betsy Miller, Messiah’s medical director, which detailed the events of the spring and fall 2020 semesters and how the tough policies put in place have been beneficial.
“We really have two overarching goals. One is to stay open and remain in-person for on-campus instruction,” Miller said. “But the second is to be responsible citizens to one another and to our surrounding communities. We believe that this is our calling.”
Many students attended the forum through a live stream and anyone interested was able to submit questions via a QR code or by accessing the website. Among the questions raised were inquiries about inconsistencies in COVID-19 rules at Messiah, the COVID-19 vaccination and student’s mental health.
To many students, some of Messiah’s COVID-19 regulations seem inconsistent between different parts of the campus community. Athletics teams are traveling and competing without masks while most students are not allowed to leave campus. Dr. Kris Hansen-Kieffer, the Vice Provost for Student Success and Engagement, understood the concerns students have.
“I think that perception is correct – that it feels very inconsistent and I’m hoping that we can explain that a little bit,” Hansen-Kieffer said.
Because Messiah’s sports teams are competing and not maintaining social distancing while doing so, this issue obviously seems confusing and unfair.
“Athletics is governed by the NCAA, the MAC Conference, our own sports medicine doctor, Betsy Miller and our head athletic trainer. One of the most significant differences is that the athletes are tested 3 times a week,” Hansen-Kieffer said.
Because of COVID-19 regulations on campus, many students are struggling with their mental health Because of decreased opportunities for social connection. Many students are looking for ways other than Falcon Care to feel connected and healthy.
“That’s a real concern. I think that we talk about that constantly when we discuss the tensions between mental health and visitation,” Hanson-Kieffer said. “I think we were all very happy to open up visitation a bit to help foster social interaction.”
Hansen-Kieffer praised student club leaders and those involved in student ministries for doing a good job of creating activities that facilitate connection and support for students. She is sensitive to first-year students and the struggles they have faced starting college during the pandemic. RAs and higher leadership have been working hard to create strong communities within residence halls.
“Falcon Care is no small thing,” Hansen-Kieffer said. “You can get a counseling session or just a chat session almost immediately when you engage them and many students have found that to be helpful. We also have our counselors and campus pastors available to chat with students if they need a space to talk.”
Students are wondering when a COVID-19 vaccine will be made available to them through campus and how that will change the policies on campus.
“We believe that the vaccine is our best hope to get to the other side of this,” Miller said. “Messiah University is signed up with the PA Department of Health right now, hoping to be a vaccine provider.”
Currently, the state of Pennsylvania is in Phase 1A for vaccine distribution, which means that access is limited.
“For those who are vaccinated,” Miller said. “Our current policy is that if someone has been exposed and it’s been two weeks since their second dose of the vaccine, they do not need to quarantine. There will still be some requirement for testing.”
Students have also been confused about whether they are required to stay on campus or if it is just a recommendation.
Hansen-Kieffer explained that focusing on the difference between a requirement and a recommendation is unhelpful and that doing whatever is necessary to keep the community healthy is a better place to start.
“In terms of expectations to stay on campus, it is an expectation that students do stay on campus as much as possible, leaving only when absolutely necessary,” Hansen-Kieffer said.
If a situation occurs in which a student must leave campus, she stresses that wearing masks, maintaining distance and being aware of who you are in close proximity to are necessary in order to stay healthy.
For many students, seeing prospective students be allowed to tour campus and incoming students attend Accepted Student Preview Days has been difficult when they themselves are not allowed to leave campus.
Jonathan Bert, Director of Conference and Event Services, offered an explanation for the necessity of allowing prospective students to physically tour campus.
“To be frank, if Messiah University is to continue, we need to bring in a first year class next year and the year after that,” Bert said. “It’s the only way that your education is sustained at an institution like Messiah.”
He went on to say that deciding where to attend college is a pretty significant decision that impacts the next four years of a student’s life.
“A lot of high school students right now are navigating virtual visits and virtual meetings with institutions but there are some people who really need that in-person event,” Bert said. “Maybe there’s current students listening right now who had the ah-ha moment when they visited Messiah. And so, it really is important to provide people that experience.”
In addition to allowing only a limited number on campus per day, visiting high school students and their families are required to go through a health screening before coming onto campus. For these guests, the dining hall and dorms are also off limits in order to keep the current student community healthy and safe.
The night concluded with a request that students who attended fill out a survey to help the university gauge the effectiveness of the event.
While the school attempted to respond to as many questions as possible during the event, many students felt that the answers given were vague and skirted around important issues. Some students’ questions were not answered at all.
As a whole, a positive spin was put on every issue, leaving students feel that their concerns were not adequately addressed.