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Campus Leaders Say Off-Campus Behavior Determines Fate of Fall Semester

The state Department of Health reports 71 COVID-19 cases are currently tied to college campuses. The state’s public universities are not expected to report individual campus numbers to the public.

With colleges around the country already closing after outbreaks, local university leaders say it’s up to students how long their campus stays open.

University of South Dakota President Sheila Gestring says there’s no clear number of COVID-19 cases that would close campus again.

She says there are 100 rooms on campus set aside for students who need to isolate because of an exposure or diagnosis. USD also has an agreement with hotels in Vermillion if more space is needed.

“If we were to get to a point that those spaces were overrun, and the hospital system in South Dakota--which for both of us would include the Sioux Falls system--those are the sorts of epidemiological things we need to be thinking about in that decision."

Gestring includes South Dakota State University in that equation. Both campuses are within an hour’s drive of Sioux Falls. Both presidents visited the Sioux Falls Downtown Rotary Club on Monday.

SDSU President Barry Dunn says he’s confident they can manage COVID-19 cases on campus. But what students do off-campus is a different story.

“The parties, bars—that’s where the major transmission of COVID is, is large groups without social distancing, without masks. Bars in particular are bad. So our student’s own behavior will dictate whether we can stay on campus.”

Dunn says that’s the case for institutions like Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—campuses that moved online less than a week after students returned. He hopes students in Brookings heed the warning.

“There’s real evidence that if you mess this up, you’re gonna be in mom and dad’s basement for the next six months and that’s not where you want to be.”

Both presidents say their retention rate of last year’s freshman class is much higher than in previous years. They say that speaks to students’ confidence in campus safety plans…and a desire to be on campus at all.

Jackie is based out of SDPB's Sioux Falls Studio.