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Saturday, March 2, 2024
The Observer

South Bend bounces back from spike in cases, adjusts to new reality of pandemic

As college students in the tri-campus community made their return to campus in late July and early August, St. Joseph County was already seeing an uptick in the number of daily coronavirus counts compared to the month of June.

“At the end of June, [St. Joseph County] was averaging 15 new cases a day,” Dr. Mark Fox, St. Joseph County deputy health officer, said. “We were actually feeling pretty good about [this]. Then there were Fourth of July and graduation parties and different things like that, and the number went up.”

On July 18, the county saw 59 new cases.

Then, the tri-campus community returned to in-person classes the week of Aug. 10. Students were required to have a pre-matriculation test with a negative result before returning to campus. Notre Dame reported only 33 positive cases while Saint Mary’s reported 4.

By Aug. 18 — eight days into the semester — Notre Dame had reported a total of 147 cases and announced a two-week shutdown to halt the alarming rise in cases.

Fox, an advisor to the University on COVID-19 matters, said the county was averaging around 108 cases per day when Notre Dame experienced its uptick in cases. He said he and his colleagues thought this was “worrisome.”

The trend for the number of new cases per day then decreased for Notre Dame and St. Joseph County as a whole. As of Monday, the county had a seven-day moving average of 43 cases, and Notre Dame reported a moving average of 6 per day.

“Certainly my impression is that the county as a whole is improving as well, so I'm cautiously optimistic that we're headed in the right direction,” Fox said.

While Notre Dame has largely been using rapid antigen testing, Fox said the majority of coronavirus tests in the rest of the county are PCR tests, with results coming back two days or later. Fox said he thinks the county is supplying “reasonable access” to a test.

“The rest of the county has pretty poor access to rapid testing, but in general, I think people who people who need a test, and even people who just want to test, are able to get that done,” Fox said.


Local K-12 schools face difficult decisions on returning to school

The rise in coronavirus cases has also stalled the return to in-person instruction for local schools.

Fox said the county needed to reach a lower threshold before returning to school, leading to anxiety among those in the K-12 community; the rise in cases at Notre Dame affected this decision.

“Obviously, no one expected the volume of cases of Notre Dame experienced,” Fox said.

On Sept. 3, the state of Indiana released a report on its recommendations to school and local officials on plans regarding online and in-person instruction. The recommendations were based on two metrics: the number of new cases in the past week per 100,000 residents and the percent positivity rate.

The report grouped counties in the state by color based on the two metrics. St. Joseph County was placed into the orange grouping, indicating moderate to high community spread. The report recommended schools in orange counties to implement hybrid learning for middle and high schools while continuing in-person instruction for grade school students.

Yet, some schools in the county have chosen to wait to return to the physical classroom for all students. The South Bend Community School Corporation (SBCSC) board of trustees announced Aug. 4 that the school corporation would start the academic year with at least eight weeks of online learning.

“The soonest students would return in person to classrooms is Oct. 5,” Superintendent Todd Cummings said in the release. “However, any decisions we make at that time will be based on health department data.”

The release said conversations would occur in mid-September to gauge the possibility of returning to in-person learning.

Michelle Conway, a second-grade teacher at Kennedy Academy, an SBCSC school for kindergarten through fifth grade, said her students have both synchronous and asynchronous learning to complete during the school day.

“I might teach a lesson and then send them off to do something independently, and then they come back later for another subject. So we do that a couple times a day,” Conway said.

Conway said it is “strange” only seeing her kids through a screen every day, and she would feel comfortable returning to in-person instruction later in the fall, but would still harbor worries in the back of her mind.

“I think they have things in place that would make it safe, but you never know until you try,” Conway said.

Fox said evidence that the virus has not spread heavily in the classroom at Notre Dame is a good sign for local schools.

“It gives hope that the K through 12 schools can conduct class and not significantly increase the risk of transmission of the virus,” Fox said.

The limits on schools and extracurricular activities have also limited the exposure of Notre Dame students to kids in the South Bend community.

Sophomore Elizabeth Heffernan, co-vice president of College Mentors for Kids, said the club typically invites students in grades one through six to campus to participate in activities surrounding high education and community outreach.

This year, Heffernan said the club has tentative plans to host 30-60 minute sessions with their “little buddies” over Zoom, and is currently waiting to receive the green light from SAO. However, she said she worries about the engagement between mentors and buddies in this virtual setting.

“Our activities obviously cannot be as hands-on as usual, so keeping the 1st-6th grade buddies engaged will be a challenge, especially when they are in their home environment with distractions and after a long school day that might be virtual, too,” Heffernan said in a text message.

If the club is able to host activities, Heffernan said she is excited for new relationships to be built and other relationships to be expanded upon within the club.

“The relationships can be a really positive impact in the little buddies’ lives and really meaningful for the mentors, too,” Heffernan said.


South Bend Latino community feels the impacts of pandemic

COVID-19 has not only impacted the whole county but has also more heavily impacted minorities.

Nancy Diaz works as a youth programs assistant at La Casa de Amistad, a not-for-profit charitable organization serving the Hispanic/Latino community in South Bend where students in the tri-campus community volunteer. She said the pandemic has affected the South Bend Latino community in several ways.

“I've seen it disrupt children's education significantly, and early in the pandemic, it highlighted workplace inequalities in factories and other settings where Latino people make up the majority of the workforce, because these have been sites of outbreaks due to lack of employer-supplied protective equipment and policies,” Diaz said in an email.

Diaz said the organization has not been able to return to normal programming but has been able to still have limited numbers of volunteers.

“Since we've had to scale back the number of people we serve, we've also scaled back the number of volunteers we have,” Diaz said.

Courtesy of Nancy Diaz
One volunteer works with two kids at La Casa de Amistad, a local organization that serves the Hispanic and Latino community of South Bend. Here, the volunteer and kids are wearing masks to ensure safety.

Diaz said despite the barriers to helping physically within the community, people can still donate and educate themselves on the inequities in the community which have been highlighted by the pandemic.

“While the news may display high levels of COVID cases within Black and Latino populations, do not be quick to blame the people affected, rather, investigate the systems around them that allow this to happen,” Diaz said.