OPINION: Return to campus: Auburn University and COVID-19

Signs around campus remind students that masks are required everywhere (all buildings as well as outdoors) and to complete their daily Healthcheck screenings.

Editor’s note: Heather Mann is a reporter for The Cullman Tribune who recently returned to campus at Auburn University for her junior year.

Classes at Auburn University started Monday, but events have been taking place since Aug. 10 (the start of the university’s Welcome Week). With more than 30,000 students (25,000 of whom are enrolled full-time), many changes have been made to keep students, faculty and staff, as well as the community as a whole, safe and healthy as students return to class. 

Many students, if not most, have at least one class that’s held entirely online, everyone at the university has to perform daily health screenings to get a pass to travel on campus, and even the academic calendar has been adjusted to keep students from returning to campus after Thanksgiving Break. Tiger Transit (the university bus system) requires all riders to wear masks on board and present the daily “passport” from the health screening when going to campus. Campus dining has heavily urged students to utilize GrubHub rather than ordering in person, and those who do order in person have designated areas to wait for their food. The Offices of Health Promotion and Wellness Services handed out free wellness kits containing a reusable mask, a thermometer and hand sanitizer. Many casual seating areas in buildings like the Student Center have either been blocked off or removed entirely.

On the extracurricular side of things, student organizations have strict regulations that they have to abide by for their events, meetings and even tables on the concourse. All attendees must be wearing masks and have some kind of health screening (whether that’s presenting their own “passport” or having organization members check temperatures and symptoms), and attendance must be carefully recorded for contact tracing purposes. Those who choose to hold meetings in person and on campus must get creative, as many meeting rooms have extremely reduced capacity; for example, the largest room in the Student Center other than the ballroom regularly holds more than 75 people, but this semester’s max capacity is only 27. Even tabling, an age-old tradition where student orgs set up tables on the main concourse and entice people with free gifts, no longer allows more than two or three representatives to be present, and none of them can walk up to people to hand stuff out; the biggest time for tabling, O-Week, has even been moved to an entirely virtual event.

Unfortunately, even with all these precautions there are still a lot of holes in the plan. Auburn can’t control what students do when they’re off campus, and several pictures on social media show people packed shoulder to shoulder in the bars downtown. Even on campus, the university can’t police every single student; I spent just under an hour walking around campus Tuesday, and even though almost everyone in the buildings was masked, about one in every three or four people outside was not. Groups of unmasked students (some carrying masks but not wearing them, others with nothing at all) would walk right past signs reminding them that face coverings must be worn everywhere on campus, including outside, without a second glance. Fraternities and sororities held their official rushes virtually, but most had some kind of in-person event afterward that was marketed as “unofficial” and “completely optional” with heavy implication to the opposite.

Many people have been speculating on how long the university will stay open before being forced to move to entirely online classes. Some give it a month, others are more generous and say around midterms. Despite the way the situation looks now, perhaps the unruly students will wise up quickly so the rest of us can get the best education we can.

Tiger Transit buses remind all passengers that masks are required on board.

Heather Mann