The fall semester at Athens State University starts Aug. 17, with classes being offered online, on campus and in blended formats, and students coming on campus will be required to test negative for COVID-19 in the two weeks before the semester begins.
The advance testing is the same protocol being followed by all of the state's 200,000 college students.
Athens State is also using random testing, web-based training and a self-screening tool called GuideSafe that was made possible through a state-funded partnership between the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Alabama’s public universities, Athens State President Phillip Way said in the return-to-campus guide.
More than a dozen sites are opening today across Alabama to test students before they head to college and university campuses statewide. However, the mass testing is only part of the equation to prevent the spread of COVID-19, one official said.
The effort "will have been for nothing" if students ignore rules about wearing masks and social distancing, said Finis St. John, head of the board that oversees the three-campus University of Alabama System.
At Athens State, many classes won't meet in person.
“We typically have a majority of students who enroll in online classes each semester,” but the total figure for the fall semester isn’t available yet, said university spokesman Chris Latham.
So far, 2,525 students have registered for fall. “Registration is open through Aug. 24, so these numbers will certainly change a lot over the next three weeks,” Latham said.
Forty-five percent, or about 1,136 students, are registered for a class with an “on-ground component,” he said. “The 45% registered for classes with an on-ground component could be traditional, face-to-face classes or they could be blended classes that only meet face-to-face two or three times during the semester with all other components online.”
Students will be contacted by email to arrange a time and place for testing, with UAB coordinating this effort, according to return-to-campus guidelines. Testing is a self-administered nasal swab and, if a student has had positive results in the past 12 weeks, he or she must submit test results and a medical clearance from the health care provider to be able to enter the campus.
Some of the protocols are “similar to what we’re doing now,” like temperature checks at campus entrances, said Latham.
At the two entrance points to the campus, at Hobbs and Beaty streets, students must show proof of a current health-check self-screening and, for visitors who don’t have the health-check screening capability, security personnel will ask a series of questions and check temperatures using a thermal no-touch thermometer, according to the guidelines. Anyone with a temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or above or who does not pass COVID-19 screening questions won’t be granted access to the campus.
All individuals going onto campus will be given a wristband that must be worn at all times.
Random testing will be conducted on students and employees on the school’s campus, according to Latham.
“About 4% of students, faculty and staff will be randomly selected each week” for testing, Latham said.
Tests for general public
With 14 testing sites scattered across the state opening today for the GuideSafe program, no one should have to travel farther than 60 miles to get to one, said Dr. Michael Saag, an infectious diseases specialist at UAB. The program is funded by $30 million in federal coronavirus assistance.
The turnaround time for results should be 24-48 hours, and once the initial tests for college students are complete, rapid testing could be used for the general public as early as the end of August.
“What we are doing right now is how to pivot in the next two to three weeks, much sooner than we had originally planned, so we can provide the service to the state, which is looking for more help in terms of capacity," Saag said.
Some students coming to an Alabama school from other states will receive an at-home test they can submit, and some will be able to submit test results from doctors' offices or commercial laboratories.
The mandatory testing program will be accompanied by frequent reminders about precautions like mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing, officials said during a virtual news conference. Voluntary testing during the academic year is meant to help track the disease.
In-person classes cost less
Athens State guidelines require students to wear face coverings, either cloth or masks, during all class meetings, and face coverings should be worn if someone can’t maintain social distancing guidelines at all times. Faculty may teach without a face covering if they’re able to distance themselves at a minimum of 6 feet, and plexiglass-type barriers or face shields may also be used.
Classrooms will be configured to accommodate social distancing guidelines, and class enrollments are being monitored to provide for limited occupancy. Classrooms will be thoroughly cleaned daily, and disinfectant misters will be used in each classroom between classes.
In June, Athens State was approved by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education to offer two new bachelor’s degree programs — Advanced Manufacturing Management and Occupational Health and Safety Management — both in the College of Business, and those will still be offered.
“They are being offered this fall, entirely online or students can take those classes on campus,” Latham said.
Earlier this year, Athens State’s trustees approved tuition for 2020-2021 that’s unchanged from the previous school year: undergraduate traditional, $206 per credit hour; undergraduate non-traditional (courses taught 100% online or in a blended format), $246 per credit hour; and traditional and non-traditional graduate, $289 per credit hour.
The difference in traditional and non-traditional tuition rates is not new, said university spokeswoman Lauren Blacklidge. “That’s always been the price structure due to the additional technological components that non-traditional ‘distance learning’ instruction incurs,” she said.