A temperature screening kiosk greets students entering the Casado Campus Center at Friends University as they return for the first day of the spring semester Monday. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)
A temperature screening kiosk greets students entering the Casado Campus Center at Friends University as they return for the first day of the spring semester Monday. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

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It’s Olivia Compton’s sixth spring semester in college, her third in the COVID-19 era and her first at Friends University.

At this point, she has an air of having seen it all, even as the omicron variant shatters what looked like the light at the end of the tunnel for the pandemic during the fall 2021 semester.

Compton said she recognizes the severity of the illness, and COVID-19 is something that’s always pressing in the back of her mind. But many of her worries come from reliving the shutdowns and disruptions that characterized the last three years of her academic career.

“It would suck to shut down again, but at the same time, it’s just become so normal,” Compton said. “It’s still weird to think that it’s normal to wear a mask.”

Students at Friends and Newman universities returned for the spring semester earlier this week, while Wichita State students aren’t returning until Tuesday.

But they’re all coming back to a different COVID-19 reality than the one they left at the end of the fall semester.

At Friends University, the surge in Wichita omicron cases led school officials to ask students to wear masks again, at least for the first two weeks of the semester. Newman University’s mask mandate, tied to Sedgwick County’s virus transmission rate, has been in effect since the summer. Wichita State returned to a mandate in the middle of the fall semester.

Rodger Sims Jr., a first-year student at Friends University, spends time at the school’s Casado Campus Center Monday. The university is again asking students to wear masks on campus amid a surge of COVID-19 cases. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

Universities have data, but it’s likely not accurate

COVID-19 spread at the universities has been difficult to pinpoint. Each of the universities has asked, but not required, that students, faculty and staff self-report any COVID-19 positive tests.

At Wichita State, though, the highest number of weekly reported COVID-19 cases during the fall semester was 11 positive cases out of 145 tests among students in late August. Even though the spring semester hasn’t started, the school reported 48 positives out of 103 tests during the first week of January.

Friends University, meanwhile, reported 40 total positive cases among students during the fall semester, while Newman had 20 reported cases.

None of the universities requires individuals to report their COVID-19 vaccination status.

Wichita State is prohibited by state law from either requiring employees to receive the vaccine or provide proof of having done so, said spokesperson Lainie Mazzullo-Hart, so the school doesn’t track any vaccination numbers.

In any case, Wichita State’s Student Health Services has administered over 4,300 vaccines to approximately 2,475 students, faculty and staff. 

Newman University asks students, faculty and staff to self-report their vaccination status, Director of University Relations Clark Schafer said. 

The university has a goal of reaching a 75% vaccination rate on campus. Schafer said the university is not sharing exact numbers beyond the campus community, but that Newman was “very close in the last reporting” of people who volunteered their vaccination status.

Friends University, likewise, doesn’t share specific vaccination numbers. But Laura Fuller, the school’s public relations and communications manager, said “a large number of our students, staff and faculty are vaccinated.”

Olivia Compton studies in the Casado Campus Center at Friends University on Monday. Compton said she worries the omicron variant could again disrupt school after COVID-19 had a relatively low profile in the fall 2021 semester. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

No changes to mitigation measures – yet

The three universities have not yet made any big changes to their COVID-19 mitigation measures. Rather, they’ve doubled down on messaging and continued to encourage students and staff to wear masks and get vaccinated.

“We hope to relax COVID-19 mitigation efforts but as it has since the start of the pandemic, the realities of the environment will drive our response,” Schafer said.

Wichita State is continuing weekly mobile vaccination clinics at Charles Koch Arena. The university had given $250 to students who showed proof of vaccination and raffled off scholarships and other prizes during the fall semester. There are no plans for another round of incentives, but Mazzullo-Hart said that could change.

At Friends, the university had a smaller-scale vaccine incentive program. Compton, the sixth-year student, said she was vaccinated off campus and didn’t participate. Still, she said it was nice to see that the university was doing something to make the campus a safer environment.

Before getting her vaccinations last year, she’d had some concerns about the speed at which the vaccine was developed. But those concerns were overridden by worries of another disrupted semester.

“There are always new variants, and you worry about it getting really bad and shutting things down again,” she said. “It’s just something that’s always in the back of your mind. It would suck to shut down again, but at the same time, it’s just become so normal.”

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Garcia was an education reporter at The Wichita Beacon and Report for America corps member.