MORGANTOWN — As thousands of students, faculty and staff prepare to return for the start of West Virginia University’s fall semester, some locals worry about how that might impact COVID-19’s rapid spread in the area.
Morgantown is a hotspot for the virus, according to data from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. As of Friday evening, Monongalia County led the state with almost 800 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 200 still active.
Gov. Jim Justice said Friday he would sign an order clearing universities and colleges to open campuses in the fall. The announcement came after he already had voiced support for the plan and met with representatives from the institutions to discuss reopening.
Arpan Kumar, who will be a junior at WVU this fall and serves on the university’s Student Government Association, said he isn’t convinced the university — or the community — is ready to deal with the influx of students. Main campus enrollment last fall topped 24,000, equivalent to more than three-fourths of Morgantown’s population.
“We have a large population of students that will be living in student housing. Students are sharing bathrooms, facilities, everything. It’s inevitable that we will see [COVID-19] impact and infect our student body,” Kumar said. “The only possibility to stop that would be to go online.”
Kumar started a petition urging the university to drop plans for a “hybrid” semester featuring a mix of in-person and online classes, and instead adopt the latter.
“The students are set up to fail here, I think. There’s a narrative that’s already formed that, I believe, enforces the idea that [WVU] will have no liability if there is an increase [in COVID-19] in Morgantown,” Kumar said. “It will always fall back on the students. That’s not fair.”
Under a hybrid model, some students would be forced to defer classes because of health concerns, Kumar said, potentially risking scholarship money and more loan debt if the class can’t be made up by graduation.
“I haven’t seen those concerns highlighted, and members of the [WVU Board of Governors] have not made solid efforts to hear concerned students throughout all of this,” Kumar said.
The student government president — who is meant to speak for the student body — holds a seat on the Board of Governors, but since most of the panel’s proceedings regarding the coronavirus and reopening have been held privately, Kumar said, there’s no way to know what’s being heard and considered.
The Student Government Association plans to survey students, but there is little chance the feedback could change the university’s response, Kumar said.
“We want the administration to allow more seats at the table for students to tell them what we think and what we’re worried about,” Kumar said. “This is our health, too. We’re at risk, too.”
Students drive commerce in Morgantown’s business district, frequenting restaurants, shops and bars.
But business owners at recent county commission meetings have voiced fears about the university reopening.
The Rev. Shawn Weaver, a pastor in the Cheat Lake area and a WVU alumni, sees the issue as a Catch-22.
Businesses either lose patrons if students don’t come back or face a shutdown if their return increases the spread of the virus, he said.
Justice already has ordered Monongalia County bars closed.
“The bars and businesses over here are affected all the same,” Weaver said.
Laura Jones, executive director of Milan Puskar Health Right, said that while students don’t frequent the clinic, they are a part of a community while they’re in Morgantown.
“I think we need to focus more on positive messaging for students. We care about their health, and we want them to take care of themselves in every way they can — including trying to limit the spread of COVID-19,” Jones said. “We can’t blame people for something inevitable; it’s not fair. We can, however, encourage them to consider the risks — the unintended consequences of their behavior.”
Preventing gatherings or monitoring compliance with COVID-19 guidelines could be difficult with thousands of students back on campus, Jones said. Their youth might heighten the risk.
“You think you’re invincible, no matter your choices,” Weaver said.
The furor over reopening reminds Weaver of a long-running debate in Morgantown: How can the university and community build better relationships between locals and students so the latter feel invested in the city and want to be involved in its improvements?
“I think we, as community members, could do a better job welcoming students as community members themselves. This is their city, their home while they’re here, I truly believe that they want things to go well,” Weaver said. “It might be out of their control, though, and [WVU] should consider that.”