Franklin College suspends in-person life after finding COVID-19 case cluster among student-athletes
Updated: Oct 6
Students discuss their experiences being forced into quarantine and isolation on short notice
By Hope Shrum
Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify that ongoing practices of the soccer and lacrosse teams have been following NCAA protocol on surveillance testing.
After rumors of a possible COVID-19 outbreak on campus started to spread among the Franklin College student body Thursday night, some truth to the concerns was revealed Friday morning.
In an email sent to students early Friday, Andrew Jones, dean of students and vice president of student development, announced there was a cluster of positive cases among the student-athletes. Random testing of student-athletes this week revealed 15 out of 73 tested positive, just over a 20% positivity rate.
In what they’ve been calling “surveillance testing,” the athletic department has done random testing of at least 25% of student-athletes that are practicing in a given week, as per NCAA protocol. In the email, Jones said that the testing started last week when teams began practicing.
That’s despite the fact many teams have been practicing since the beginning of the year. Anyone who has passed by Faught Stadium since classes began could see the men’s and women’s soccer and lacrosse teams practicing. Cross country also ran together six days of the week since before classes began.
This was in accordance with the NCAA protocol on surveillance testing. The requirements for surveillance testing are based on the level of risk and the stage of resocialization defined by the NCAA. The resocialization refers to how closely student-athletes can be to one another and level of direct contact for high-risk sports.
In the first round of surveillance testing last week, Jones said that only one out of 46 student-athletes tested positive.
Jones said that the results of this week’s testing came in around 8 p.m. Thursday, and he and residence life staff started contacting the positive students right away.
Junior TJ Cox received the call around 9 p.m., while he was out at a restaurant. He got a call from someone with a Johnson County area code and figured he should answer it. Next thing he knew, campus life told him his test had come back positive.
“I was kind of like ‘wow, I wasn’t expecting that,” Cox said.
As a football player, Cox had been part of the surveillance testing group this week. He said that earlier in the week he had a small cough, but he simply thought it was allergies.
After he got the call, he had to go straight to his room, pack up and move into the basement of Cline Hall since he had no way of getting home on such short notice. Throughout all of this, he also had to call his parents and other people back in his hometown to update them on what was going on.
“I can’t believe this night just kind of just got like this real quick,” Cox said. “It was just kind of a really big rush thing last night, just trying to get everyone as much information as possible and then trying to get everything moved down here.”
Within less than three hours after getting the call, Cox had uprooted everything and moved into his new isolation home for the next two weeks.
Along with the 15 student-athletes who were informed of their positive case Thursday night, several students, both athletes and non-athletes, who were in direct contact with the positive students were informed of their situations as well.
Some were told Thursday night, while even more were told Friday. They were only given an hour to move out.
Jones said that there were two reasons for requiring such a short time frame to pack and move off campus or into one of the designated suites.
First, they wanted to make it as quick as possible to “eliminate or reduce the exposure to other people.” And second, they didn’t want students driving late at night Thursday, if possible.
“We got the information pretty late in the evening, and so we wanted to make sure the people who were returning home, that they weren’t driving too late,” Jones said. “So, that was the rationale for the quick departure.”
Jones said that the students were all given the choice of going home or, if need be, staying on campus in an isolation suite, located in the Cline basement, or a quarantine suite located in the basement of Hoover Hall. He believed there are currently four students in the isolation suites and two students in the quarantine suites.
Rather than staying in a dorm room where he would feel “trapped,” freshman Kalijah Hessig chose to go home where he would feel more comfortable.
He was exposed to the virus when his roommate, a football player, tested positive during the surveillance testing. At first, he was upset about it, asking himself, “Why me?” It took him a minute to understand the repercussions that he was going to have to face, like leaving campus.
“It was very shocking, to realize, ‘oh, this can happen to me,’” Hessig said. “It’s always been something that’s out there, that you don’t really have to worry about until it affects you.”
Hessig did not expect the first challenge of this situation to be locked out of his residence hall. When he tried to get in around 10:30 Thursday night, he found out that his key card had been denied access to the building. Someone let him in so he didn’t have to stand in the cold and dark.
Not long after that, he spoke over the phone with Russ Norris, assistant director of residence life. Norris mentioned that they had the wrong phone number on file for Hessig, so denying his card access to the hall was one way of getting in contact with him.
Jones also said that turning off students’ key cards is part of the protocol when it comes to students who need to isolate or quarantine, whether it be on or off campus. He was not sure about the amount of time between when the student is first notified about quarantining or isolating and when their key card is turned off.
Hessig said it was nerve-wracking after he finally got into his room and packed his things—which didn’t take very long—because he had to sit there for an hour waiting on his stepdad to pick him up, all while waiting on a return call from Norris that never came.
The next morning, however, he received an email from Kathryn Dennehy, associate dean of students, saying not to worry if they hadn’t been reached out to yet because there was a lot of cases and a lot of things going on, and they were trying to get to everyone as soon as they could.
“It’s like dominoes, really,” Hessig said. “As soon as one person doesn’t listen to the guidelines or doesn’t follow the rules, we get outbreaks.”
He added that while this isn’t necessarily an outbreak, the number of cases did increase drastically.
On the other hand, freshman Kobe Darnold, a member of the men’s soccer team, was tested during the surveillance testing this week, but his results showed he was negative.
He was sent home Friday morning to start his 14 days of quarantine. Even though his test was negative, he had been in close contact with another athlete who tested positive.
Darnold contacted the nurse Friday morning to tell her about his contact with the student who tested positive, and almost immediately after that, he was on his way home. But he still wasn’t sure why he was being sent home since his own test had come out negative.
“Honestly, it’s tough, mentally,” Darnold said. “I’m just a freshman trying to make new friends. So, it’s hard when someone just leaves and they’re gone for two weeks, and you don’t get to see anybody else. And I can’t make any more new friends because I’m also quarantined.”
Friday afternoon Franklin College President Kerry Prather sent out an email to students saying that, with the concerning increase in COVID positivity, the college will be temporarily suspending all in-person athletic activities and classes until Oct. 9.
Students have been given the choice of either returning home for the next week while classes are being held remotely, or they can stay in their residence halls.
Jones said that the dining hall will remain open, but students’ scheduled mealtimes are going to be discontinued for the week.
“We anticipate a number of students will choose to return to their permanent residence,” Jones said. “So, we think we’ll be able to de-densify the dining hall naturally by students’ patterns of attendance.”
The rescheduled 2020 commencement will still take place Oct. 11, but all students working the event must present a negative COVID-19 test to be able to participate.
Opinion Editor Carolina Puga Mendoza and Sports Editor Alexa Shrake contributed reporting.