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Signs in the University of Georgia's Legion Pool parking lot denote the site as a COVID-19 surveillance testing site in Athens, Georgia, on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach; @taylormckenzie_photo)

Hybrid, synchronous and symptomatic were just a few of the new terms commonly used on social media, Zoom meetings and around the quiet University of Georgia campus by students and faculty during the fall 2020 semester. 

In March, the UGA community adapted to virtual learning, which continued over the summer and into the fall semester. 

Sophomore animation student Olivia Martin was surprised when her physical education and animation classes were suddenly not offered for the fall 2020 semester. While she had one class that met in person every third class session, she spent most of the semester teaching herself and going to class whenever she could — which wasn’t often. 

“I’m really disappointed, it’s not been very productive for me,” Martin said, who feels she’s lost the connection between student and teacher by not having classes in person.

The spring 2021 semester is positioned to include more in-person classes and three instruction-free days in place of spring break, but the next few months will impact the foreseeable future on campus. Since the start of the pandemic, UGA has reported 4,299 COVID-19 cases within the university community.

Summer upheaval

After the university canceled classes in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, faculty, staff and students had about two weeks to shift to completely virtual instruction. The campus remained quiet through the rest of the spring and all through the summer session. 

Public opinion, especially on social media, was buzzing with criticism and confusion as the fall semester drew near. As the University System of Georgia went back and forth on requiring masks inside campus buildings, faculty and staff became worried for their health and safety in the classroom. 

Faculty in the Mary Frances Early College of Education and Franklin College of Arts and Sciences sent letters to President Jere Morehead and USG Chancellor Steve Wrigley, citing concerns for their safety just one week before classes started. Some made their fears and anger known during an August die-in, an October protest at the Arch and by lighting a memo on fire in front of the administration building in response to the decision to not tell students about positive cases among their classmates. 

The university launched the DawgCheck reporting website to encourage the community to report symptoms and positive COVID-19 cases. However, the application is not mandatory, and the only information UGA includes in its COVID-19 weekly data update is from DawgCheck. 

Before the launch of the surveillance testing program for asymptomatic students, faculty and staff volunteers on Aug. 10, the university had recorded 457 coronavirus cases. The testing capacity for surveillance testing began at 300 tests per day.

Case trends, improvements 

Days after the start of classes, UGA saw its highest spike of COVID-19 cases at 918 during the week of Aug. 24-30 and then topped it at 1,490 the next week. 

The increase in cases coincided with 37,000 students returning to campus and hundreds of students participating in sorority and fraternity recruitment and flocking to downtown Athens bars and restaurants. 

UGA’s positivity rate exceeded the recommended 5% by the World Health Organization for just three weeks during the fall semester. The majority of cases have been reported by students. Since Sept. 21, UGA has reported fewer than 100 new cases per week. 

Just before the Labor Day weekend, students noticed that surveillance testing appointment slots were hard to schedule. The situation soon resolved, but not enough members of the community were voluntarily getting tested to meet the program’s testing quota. 

That changed on Oct. 8, when the university began offering incentives such as coupons and free coffee to those who scheduled a surveillance test. Since then, UGA has seen its number of surveillance tests increase.   

Testing capacity has also improved since the start of the semester. UGA can now test up to 500 asymptomatic volunteers per day. Before Thanksgiving break, UGA upped its capacity again. From Nov. 9-20, UGA can test 1,000 volunteers per day using both nasal and saliva testing.

Uncertain outlook

After Nov. 20, it is up to the UGA Medical Oversight Task Force to determine the amount of surveillance testing from now until the end of the semester, UGA spokesperson Greg Trevor said in an email to The Red & Black. 

Martin has tried to stay organized with her school work and class schedule, but she isn’t convinced next semester will look much different. She’s decided to take a gap semester and try to find an internship in the film industry in Athens or Atlanta instead. 

“I’m not returning to any university until I can get the in-person classes I need,” Martin said. “The quality is not worth the Zell Miller scholarship I worked so hard for.”

Martin knows of five students who have made the same decision as her. The reduced human interaction in class as well as decreased in-person social gatherings for clubs and recreational sports has been “detrimental to everyone’s mental health,” she said. 

A spring semester testing strategy is currently being discussed by the task force, Trevor said. The plan will continue mandatory face coverings in all buildings and daily, voluntary reports in DawgCheck. The university will continue to have 500 rooms for students who need to isolate or quarantine.