Colleges and universities in Middle Tennessee prepare to welcome students amid COVID-19 spike

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Colleges and universities in Middle Tennessee are closely watching COVID-19 cases and vaccinations while implementing policies to help keep the virus from spreading.

Freshmen and new students start returning to the Lipscomb University campus on Monday.

“We’re just eager to see them and to get this academic year off and running,” said Matt Paden, Lipscomb University Senior Vice President for Enrollment and Student Life. “Obviously we hope that COVID and other things will allow for us to have a more full and engaging year and obviously at this point we’re monitoring all the things that are going on around us and trying to make this the best academic year that we can for our students and provide them the experience that they both deserve and feel like they’re signing up for.”

Starting Friday, and until Sept. 3, all Lipscomb University students, faculty, staff, and guests will be required to wear masks inside university buildings, regardless of vaccination status. Students who return to on-campus classes or those who live on campus must have proof of the vaccine, or proof of a negative COVID-19 test within the past five days, or a positive PCR COVID-19 test within the last 90 days but before the last 14 days prior to returning to campus.

“We’re saddened by the impact of the Delta variant,” Paden said. “We realize just how impactful it has been on so many people’s lives and we’re trying to monitor that, we’re all trying to understand what that’s going to look like for our student body and when we think about our students we also think about our employees.”

It’s a similar mentality at Vanderbilt University as they wait to welcome students as well. VU announced employees have to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 or exempted by September 30th. Visitors coming to campus must wear a mask indoors, regardless of whether they’re vaccinated. Also, all new and returning students will be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 for the 2021-22 academic year.

“I’m really excited to see that. I really think this will help us in our return to normalcy at Vanderbilt and really help us go back to that normal student and college atmosphere that we have and that we’ve been striving to achieve this past year,” said Vanderbilt University student Noah Lustbader.

He’s part of a student organization working to drive greater awareness within the university community about the benefits of COVID-19 vaccinations.

“I think it’s twofold. I think on the one hand I want to keep myself safe and secondly, I want to keep those – my family and my friends and my peers and colleagues safe around me as well,” Lustbader said. “There’s been extensive testing done. These vaccines are effective. These vaccines are safe.”

In addition to the physical impact the pandemic has had on college students, Paden said the mental health of these students was also a concern.

“For a number of years now, the mental health of students across the country has been one of the leading challenges on college campuses. So, you add that to the isolation, to the disruption in people’s lives that they’ve had over the past year and a half. And those numbers nationwide continue to trend upwards in a bad direction, in terms of where students are with their mental health,” Paden explained. “We try to take a holistic approach here at Lipscomb to how we work with students and walk through life with students the mind, body, and soul.”

He said still there were lessons that have come out of the pandemic so far that they plan to implement during this new school year. Lipscomb also saw record enrollment last year.

“For us, there were some things we were forced to do –digitize more forms and in registration processes. We do some things with the use of virtual technologies, meetings with students and student groups that were in different places in different locations,” Paden said. “I think the use of technology in the classroom will continue to be a big piece of what we do moving forward.”

He said the use of online learning is a big topic of discussion in higher education.

“There is a place for online education. We have, at Lipscomb, online degrees that we offer,” said Paden. “But there’s also a place for traditional education and for our community at Lipscomb, most of our students overwhelmingly prefer life in the classroom and being a part of a relationship with a faculty member or a faculty member who serves as a mentor.”

As their students and others across the country face another unprecedented school year, Paden encourages them to remain resilient.

“We have juniors here on campus who missed part of their freshman year, the last half of their second semester, you have sophomores who had a really hard ending to their high school experience, and then a freshman year on campus that was very much less than what they had hoped, across the country,” said Paden. “We know they’ve learned a lot about resilience, we hope they’ve learned a lot about the importance of being flexible and nimble. We talk about and we will talk about with students this year that we know we can do hard things together.”

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