COVID-19, a kind of coronavirus, is named for the virus’ crown-like fringes. Photo courtesy of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

This is a developing story. For the most recent updates, follow @RhodyCigar and @mary_lind18 on Twitter. 

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Rhode Island’s face-to-face classes will be canceled next week. Classes will resume, however, online the following Monday, March 23 until at least Friday, April 3.

The University announced this decision via email at 2:21 p.m. on March 11. 

“We wanted to put everyone’s health first, including the members of our community,” said Vice President of Student Affairs Kathy Collins when discussing the rationale behind the choice.

This decision affects most things on campus, from housing and classes and extending to other services such as dining, housing, health, recreation and previously scheduled events. Below is a brief overview of what this means for different aspects of life at URI, and answers to some general questions that people may have.

How will this affect on-campus housing?

Several universities throughout the country have closed their housing and transitioned entirely to online learning for the remainder of the semester. As of right now, the University doesn’t have plans to do that.

“We will still be here to support our students, [and] we recognize that [for] many of our students, this is home,” Collins said. “We’ve actually made the intentional decision to stay open, but we want to reduce the number of people on campus.” 

The University will remain open during the next two weeks and will have limited dining, health, recreation and housing services available for students who choose to remain on campus. 

Director of Housing & Residential Life (HRL) Frankie Minor posted the following on the URI Parents Facebook page: “students living in URI residence halls ARE allowed back to their rooms to either retrieve belongings or also stay in their rooms if that is their only/best option. Students are ENCOURAGED to remain at home if possible but are not prohibited from returning to their rooms.” 

An email sent out by URI Communications said that the University recognized that “remaining at home may not be possible or prudent for everyone.” Students who need or anticipate needing to stay in on-campus housing need to fill out a ‘Statement of Intent’ form on MyHousing through e-Campus. The message also mentioned that since the residence halls will not be closing, students will not be issued refunds, “whether students choose to use them or not.”

How are classes going to work?

When classes resume on March 23, they’ll either be conducted online through Sakai or Brightspace or through video conferencing platforms such as Webex or Zoom. Faculty members will be taking the next week to plan how they’ll conduct their classes for the time being.

The transition to online learning poses a different set of problems for hands-on classes like labs and classes in the theater and film departments, for example.

“Our goal is [that] all of our students get to complete the semester,” said Collins. “How we do that, we’re going to get really creative. We’re going to work with the faculty, we’re going to work with our students, we’re going to use modern technology to the best of our ability and really see how we can do this.”

The email from URI Communications said that “individual faculty are expected to be in contact with their students regarding their plans for remote instruction prior to Monday, March 23.”

In the same email, it was announced that graduate and faculty research will continue as usual on and off-campus. Graduate research will continue with the approval of their faculty. Thesis and dissertation defenses will also continue as usual, however, the only people allowed in these events will be the student and the committee that is attending.

Will this impact University events?

As of Friday, March 13, all events with at least 100 in-person participants will be canceled or postponed. As of today, interscholastic and non-intercollegiate athletic events will be running as scheduled, but only coaches, players and “essential staff of the teams” will be allowed to attend. 

Events in the Ryan Center and Boss Ice Arena scheduled for this weekend will go on as planned. However, many events will limit who can attend them.

“Those events will go on to allow the Rhode Island high school athletes who have made it to the state championships to play in those state championship games,” Collins explained. “However, we are limiting who can be in attendance to the teams and coaches only. No fans, including family members, will be permitted.”

The University will be looking to reschedule other future events, such as the event from comedian Nick Offerman, among others. 

What about Health & Safety

There are currently five confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state of Rhode Island, but there are no known cases of COVID-19 within the URI Community, per the Health Services website and Collins. However, the community is preparing for that possibility.

“I’ll be honest with you: we’re actually also practicing today for when we have a case on campus, not if,” said Collins. 

Teams from HRL, Dining Services and Health Services all practiced this morning what to do when COVID-19 hits the campus directly. Health Services, for example, has what Collins described as “personal protective gear,” and they’re working on isolation rooms to ensure that students who are sick are separated from those who aren’t. They’re also working to make sure that the students who work for URI EMS have the protective gear that they need.

Collins said that in the event a student who needs to stay on campus becomes ill, the University has the ability to isolate them. 

“We have the ability and the food supply to drop food off at the room, maybe two days worth, so they can stay isolated there, especially in rooms that have private bathrooms,” Collins said.

Health Services doesn’t have the capacity to test for the virus on-campus but does have the ability to take swabs for COVID-19 as well as the flu. COVID-19 swabs will be sent to the lab at the RI Department of Health, and then to the CDC for confirmation. Health Services has had the capacity to swab for COVID-19 since January, according to Collins.

For staff who will be working on-campus during the next two weeks, precautions have been put into place to ensure their safety.

Why all the fuss?

“This is certainly a kind of response I have not seen, that I can’t remember ever seeing before,” said research professor Dr. Alan Rothman, who has studied viral diseases in humans for over 25 years.

Outbreaks of similar illnesses, such as the swine flu (also known as H1N1) in 2009 and SARS in the early 2000s (which was also a strain of coronavirus), while still serious, didn’t cause as much disruption, according to Rothman. H1N1, for example, infected many people, but did not result in as many school closings since its symptoms were mild.

Rothman also explained that the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003 created a major increase in effort for studying coronaviruses, since SARS is also a coronavirus. But the SARS seemed to disappear relatively quickly, along with the interest in studying similar viruses. Additionally, he added that while coronaviruses are “not easy to work with,” the SARS outbreak gave scientists more background on coronaviruses than they had before. 

Rothman said that lowering infection rates is important at this point since there are not enough resources yet to deal with a significant number of cases.“

“Part of what we’re trying to do isn’t really with the expectation that we’re going to substantially reduce the number of people that get ill,” Rothman said. “If we could slow it down, then we won’t be overwhelmed. From a public health perspective, that’s still a very worthwhile goal, even though it may not ultimately help each individual person.”

COVID-19, similar to influenza and other coronaviruses like SARS, is transmitted primarily by respiratory droplets. According to the Cleveland Clinic, it could also be possible that the illness can be contracted by touching a surface with the virus on it and then touching their face, but this isn’t thought to be the primary way the virus spreads. 

Why now? Why at all?

COVID-19 has been in the news for months and has increasingly become more of a health risk, with the World Health Organization classifying it as a pandemic earlier this afternoon. 

“The University takes this decision very seriously, but we did not easily make this decision, or quickly,” Collins said, “but I believe this gives students time and our community members time to make good decisions about what to do next.” 

“We believe our strong civic responsibility and community responsibility [is] to help slow down the spread of COVID-19,” said Collins. “So in light of that and the fact that many of our students are on spring break this week, we wanted to create an opportunity to encourage students to stay home, not come back to campus.”

Since January, the University has had a team meeting to address COVID-19 as it started to spread. They have been looking closely at the spread of the virus in the United States and have been in frequent contact with the Rhode Island Department of Health and the Office of Gov. Gina Raimondo, as well as keeping updated with CDC recommendations and looking at what universities across the country are doing.

Raimondo declared a state of emergency on Monday, which allows the state more access to emergency funds and gives the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency to establish Collins met with state Department of Health officials in the governor’s office on Monday.

Collins said that, while acknowledging that the University needs to make decisions “somewhat separate” from that, she “completely agree[s] [with] and understand[s]” the decision to declare a state of emergency.

“Our decision certainly was informed by the declaration of a state of emergency. At the time we did it when we had very few cases in the state, but it allows us to be more agile and mobile in our response,” she said. 

What next? When will things return to normal?

“[When will things return to normal] is a really good question that I do not have an answer for,” said Collins.

As April 3 approaches, the University’s COVID-19 response team will continue to evaluate the situation in order to determine the next steps. 

“We are literally meeting almost daily with the Rhode Island Department of Health and working with our colleagues around the country and at other institutions to make timely decisions,” Collins said. 

In the meantime, though, students can take measures to keep themselves and those around them as safe as possible. 

“Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands,” said Collins. “Practice social distancing. Try to be at least six feet away [from others]…cough into your arm or a tissue, be careful, wipe things down. Practice good, amazing healthy habits. Take care of yourselves to the best of your ability.”

Young, healthy adults are not at very high risk for severe cases of COVID-19. Most who get the disease in this demographic will have only a mild case, but some could get it more seriously, winding up in the hospital or intensive care units. The risk of that is higher for older adults, people who are immune-compromised and people with pre-existing conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory diseases and others. The fatality rate and rate of extremely serious infection remain low, but is still present.

“In a community the size of URI, [it’s] not trivial, but certainly not the hugest risk,” Rothman said. 

Collins also acknowledged that college-aged individuals are not at the highest risk for COVID-19.

“We recognize that it’s not impactful on the younger community, [but] you can be a carrier to someone else,” she said. “Are you going to take that home to your grandparents? There’s faculty and staff that are in the population that could be seriously impacted by this. This is up to us as community members to look out for each other.”

As of tomorrow, March 12, the University will have an information hotline set up for anybody in the URI community who has questions. It will be available Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 401-874-3082.