Sam Landstra – Staff Writer
Sharlee Fopma is rarely late for class. It is hard to miss it, of course, when the walk takes two steps.
Since last Saturday, the junior pre-physical therapy major has been quarantined in a local hotel. As Sioux County grapples with a surge in COVID-19 cases, 80 other students (as of October 5) have been sent home or sentenced to hotels like Fopma.
Her king size bed offers a more sizable alternative to the extra-long twin she is accustomed to back on campus, and a quilt handmade by her grandmother is draped across it. On a footrest close by sit a Bible and devotional. Fopma reads them every morning before traveling the three feet to her desk for class.
“I’m doing as good as I can, I guess.” Fopma said.
Over the past few days, every aspect of her life has been squeezed into to these couple hundred square feet. It did not have to be this way, though.
When COVID-19 cases on campus fell into the single digits in mid-September, Dordt scaled back their virus containment regulations, including the 24-student limit for classrooms.
Fopma found herself unable to socially distance in her Sociology and Social Justice class. At a table with four others in SB1603, no more than three feet separated Fopma from her classmates for fifty minutes, three times a week. She raised her concerns to the registrar.
In response, the registrar referenced a geometric pattern the tables could be arranged in to allow proper social distancing in all classrooms. Such was not the case in SB1603; the room and class size could not permit it. Fopma had done what she could.
“Do you care? Or are you just wanting to make the profs happy?” Fopma said. “Are you more concerned about getting all of your students back into classes rather than the safety of all the students?”
A few weeks later, one of her tablemates tested positive for COVID-19. They did not place Fopma on their contact tracing list however, despite interaction with her for almost a full hour. She faced an ethical dilemma.
“It kind of just came down to thinking about my roommates, rather than myself—sacrificing fourteen days so that my roommates stayed healthy.” Fopma said.
Fopma entered quarantine.
In September Dordt had eased off numerous COVID-19 regulations both inside and outside of the classroom. It felt as if the worst of things had come and gone for a short while, with zero active reported cases and just four others in quarantine on September 17.
An original limit of 200 students expanded to 300 for chapel and praise and worship, and attendance caps for sporting events also raised. On September 13, local churches began welcoming students back into their congregations after initially asking them to attend virtually.
Outside of campus, though, a different narrative played out. COVID-19 cases had been rising in Sioux County since the beginning of the school year and, along with it, the case positivity rate. With 27% of Sioux County natives testing positive over a fourteen-day period (September 20 ), the county ranked fourth in Iowa, according to the Iowa COVID-19 dashboard. On two of these days (September 20 and October 4), testing positive was a coin flip of fifty percent.
Just eleven days after Dordt posted zero active recorded COVID-19 cases, numbers on campus spiked as well. On September 28, 135 students had entered quarantine or isolation, with 18 active positive cases. It marked a fifteenfold increase for those in quarantine or isolation since September 17, and more than double from one week earlier.
“It’s almost like six months ago, scientists are telling us to do these three things to slow community spread. And then we didn’t do them for six months, and now we’re reaping the consequences,” said Steve Mahr, owner of Town Square Coffee House in Orange City.
Mahr, a parent with three children in the Sioux County public school system, chose to homeschool his kids after the MOC-Floyd Valley school board refused to enforce a mask mandate.
During the summer, the school sent out surveys to students, teachers, and parents, asking their opinions on masks for the upcoming school year. When the majority voiced their dislike towards a mandate and some even claimed they would refuse policy if masks were required, the school decided against requiring masks, breaking away from CDC recommendations.
“It’s challenging,” said Howard Wilson, Dordt vice president and co-chair of the COVID-19 task force. “I think there are some people who haven’t taken the virus too seriously.”
As COVID-19 cases in Sioux County rose to the point where one in four locals had been
tested for the virus (via the Iowa COVID-19 dashboard), MOC-Floyd Valley remained hesitant to enforce masks. Instead, they implemented the “COVID Shuffle”.
At the ring of every thirteen minutes, students rearranged their seating chart as to skirt the fifteen minute time period required to be contact traced, as laid out by the CDC. It lasted one day.
On September 25, administrators from the four county hospitals met with local school superintendents and university presidents over Zoom. They feared ICUs would reach capacity if no changes were made in the community. An ask for mandated facial coverings, amongst other things, was issued.
MOC-Floyd Valley replied by encouraging masks. Other local schools and churches followed in the same, non-compulsory, manner.
“I really believe in integrity.” Mahr said. “When you’re responsible to keep things
workable, and you choose not to, you have an integrity gap. I see a ton of integrity gaps.”
Back on campus, Dordt had reinstated multiple COVID-19 regulations. At the Commons and Defender Grille, they implemented heightened protocols and limited seating. Attendance caps for chapel and praise and worship returned to 200, and only a limited amount of tickets opened up for the Dordt vs Northwestern football game.
On October 5, the university recorded 20 active positive cases on campus with 80 in quarantine or isolation, showing little change from days prior.
“I’m angry.” Mahr said. “And I’m passionate about keeping my community safe, but how do
“It’s a really small sacrifice to pay for everybody to be just a little bit more safe.”
I communicate that in a way where I can still be heard?”
Wilson notes that a “Gordian Knot” of religion, politics, and personal health concerns have likely led Sioux County to the COVID-19 numbers they are experiencing now. And without any sense of tragedy in the community, of the impact the virus can have on others, a shift in action may not come easy. He hopes people will take to wearing masks and practicing proper social distancing though. Fopma does too.
“We have to all have a trust with the students to make sure that everybody’s doing what’s going to be best for Dordt.” Fopma said. “It’s a really small sacrifice to pay for everybody to be just a little bit more safe.”