Georgia College’s COVID case spike creates big test for campus

Georgia College and State University freshmen Ashlynn Anglin (right) and Meghan Murphy (second from right) wear face masks as they talk amongst themselves while traveling through the campus in Milledgeville, Friday, Aug. 21, 2020.  (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Georgia College and State University freshmen Ashlynn Anglin (right) and Meghan Murphy (second from right) wear face masks as they talk amongst themselves while traveling through the campus in Milledgeville, Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

MILLEDGEVILLE — Georgia College students are more than a month away from midterm exams, but an important test for everyone here will take place this weekend.

The number of students diagnosed with COVID-19 has risen significantly in recent days: 25 reported Tuesday, 36 on Wednesday, 62 on Thursday. Forty-four student cases were reported Friday on its website. The college has recorded a total of 223 cases since it began recording cases in mid-June.

School leaders are hoping the totals will decline, but the potential for weekend parties and other large gatherings where students could put themselves in danger of contracting the disease looms.

Georgia College President Steve Dorman released a video Friday urging students to follow social distancing practices. The student government association president posted a similar message on social media. Administrators plan to have discussions with apartment companies to discourage students from having off-campus gatherings they believe are responsible for most of the cases.

ExploreGeorgia closes in on 5,000 coronavirus deaths
ExploreGeorgia colleges battle to slow rise in COVID-19 cases

The city council passed an ordinance Friday requiring residents to wear a face covering in public places that takes effect at 8 a.m. Saturday. The ordinance was in the works several weeks ago, and unrelated to the school, but city manager Hank Griffeth said “we anticipate it will help those folks.”

The state’s public college system, which includes Georgia College, has a mask mandate for all its campuses, but many students at the off-campus gatherings are attending without masks, photos show.

Some on campus are skeptical about cases declining. The college needs to step up its asymptomatic testing, said Brandy Kennedy, a political science and public administration professor. She believes the spike in cases stems largely from in-person rush events organized by Greek Life organizations before classes began Aug. 12.

“I absolutely expect the numbers to continue to rise,” Kennedy said.

Some of the state’s largest public universities, such as Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia, are doing their own testing and released results in about two days. Smaller schools such as Georgia College are testing in different ways.

Georgia College has partnered with the state to offer testing at the local health department, two CVS pharmacies and private facilities. The tests are sent to a lab, and results can range from one day to up to a week. Some students are opting for tests from companies unaffiliated with Georgia College that have either stopped testing or run out of tests, said Shawn Brooks, its vice president for student affairs.

To date, Brooks said, no students have had serious symptoms.

Brooks partly attributes the high numbers to students who were excited to see each other when they returned to campus and sometimes forgot social distancing best practices when they left campus.

“They get off campus and relax their methods of masking and social distancing,” he said.

Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville has seen a significant rise recently in the number of students diagnosed with COVID-19. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville has seen a significant rise recently in the number of students diagnosed with COVID-19. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Georgia College is one of the few University System of Georgia institutions to post daily numbers on how many students and employees have tested positive for COVID-19. Officials say they want to be transparent.

The school is located about 80 miles southeast of Atlanta. Its six-year graduation rate last year was about 64%, slightly above the systemwide average of 62%. About 7,000 students enrolled here last year, less than one-fifth of the University of Georgia’s enrollment.

A few hundred students were on campus for classes Friday. Most wore masks while walking under the stately oak trees on the campus green. Some didn’t wear masks as they played spikeball on the green or gathered outside.

It’s a quiet campus. Students turned their heads when a police car blared its siren as it passed.

The party scene consists of the fraternity and sorority houses. There are also a few restaurant/bars within walking distance downtown, sandwiched between an eclectic collection of boutiques, salons, an ice cream shop and a movie theater converted into a Barnes & Noble campus bookstore.

Georgia College and State University freshman Emily Brown (right) wears a face mask as she talks about her experience being back on campus with the risk of COVID-19 in Milledgeville, Friday, Aug. 21, 2020.  (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Georgia College and State University freshman Emily Brown (right) wears a face mask as she talks about her experience being back on campus with the risk of COVID-19 in Milledgeville, Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

First-year students Harper Wall and Emily Brown, both 18, have noticed more students wearing masks in recent days. The students live together on campus and have paid attention to increases in confirmed cases and are worried it may result in the school switching to online learning.

Georgia College officials said they have no such current plans. Any changes, they said, would be made in consultation with the University System.

“We want to stay here,” Wall said.

“Especially since we’ve met all these people,” Brown said.

Wall said she’s heard classmates say they plan to “stay home and lay low this weekend.”

In Other News