Colleges and COVID-19: St. Thomas starts semester, Winona State under quarantine

The video board at the University of St. Thomas encourages students to wear a mask on campus amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (FOX 9)

Safety concerns for slowing the spread of the coronavirus remain a top concern for university leaders as campuses across Minnesota start the new school year.

For senior Abby Gureski the first day of fall semester felt different this year on the University of Saint Thomas campus. From the masks, the spaced out students to her virtual intercultural communications class, but she acknowledged it sure beats the alternative.

“If we get sent home, we get sent home, but I like being here on campus,” said Gureski.

“We’ll all learn the ropes pretty soon and once you get into a pattern, it’ll be easier,” said Maysel Giebel, a St. Thomas senior.

St. Thomas is not alone in totally reimagining the college experience amid the pandemic with outbreaks popping up across the country. The university is providing each student with a handy COVID prep kit complete with thermometer, hand sanitizer and face coverings. Classes are a mix of in-person, online and hybrid learning models. No guests are allowed in campus housing to keep the socializing and the potential virus spread to a minimum.

“We are emphasizing very clearly both on and off campus: No large group gatherings, no parties,” said Linda Baughman, the St. Thomas dean of students. “We’re seeing what’s happening at other universities.”

About 135 miles away at Winona State University in southeastern Minnesota, it’s a different story for junior Sydney Adkins.

"I don’t know if it will ever be normal this semester for sure," said Adkins.

Her campus locked-down in a self-imposed quarantine. State health officials are reporting at least 236 positive coronavirus cases connected to the school. Virtually everything is going online for at least the next two weeks.

“We’re working with each institution to look at where the cases are occurring, how we’re seeing the transmission occur and what guidance would be the best for that particular institution given the population and stuff like that,” said Minnesota Department of Health Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann.