Sam Landstra – Staff Writer
In a county that had largely balked at COVID-19 restrictions, the virus found a home in late September. For almost the entire month, Sioux County reported daily COVID-19 case numbers that cracked 200. There had been no state government mandate on masking or social distancing. For the most part, people were free to attend school, frequent businesses, and go to church as they pleased with minimal limitations.
This lifestyle combined with the rising case numbers and average case positivity rate—which hit 58 percent on September 20—spurred local health officials into action. They called a meeting between the presidents of Dordt University and Northwestern College and other area school superintendents to issue a three-part request: mandated facial coverings, maintained physical distancing, and continued promotion of hygiene.
“That was a scary moment. But yet personally for Dordt, I would say we felt encouraged by it.” Dordt University President Erik Hoekstra said. “They were saying, ‘Hey, everybody pay attention to what Dordt’s trying to do.’”
In contrast to the surrounding community, Dordt University had by that time implemented multiple COVID-19 restrictions—including mandated mask wearing in public spaces and a contact-tracing system that placed individuals infected or traced into quarantine or isolation.
Still, by September 28 Dordt had recorded 18 active positive COVID-19 cases within the student body with a total of 135 in quarantine or isolation.
“If [case counts] would have doubled again then I think we would have had to say to kids, ‘Hey, we’re going to finish this semester back at home.’” Hoekstra said.
The spike in cases at Dordt petered out in the weeks that followed and hovered in the single digits for the remainder of the calendar year. For a brief two-week span in November, numbers rose past ten again before falling back to zero at the close of the in-person semester.
In total, Dordt University recorded 153 positive cases, around nine percent of its enrollment. They also placed students into quarantine or isolation 612 times.
Josie Christensen found herself counted among the latter number. Christensen spent 27 days in a form of quarantine or isolation over the course of the semester. She split her time between 18 nights at the Econo Lodge, five at home, and four at the Alumni House. Her sentences add up to almost one third of the in-person fall calendar. By now, she’s an expert at it.
“It was so different that anything I have ever experienced.” Christensen said. “[It’s] a perspective I never wanted to have.”
Her first quarantine came about after her roommate tested positive around the time of the late-September spike. It landed her in the Econo Lodge for ten days and forced her away from her role in the fall mainstage theater production, “Arms and the Man.”
Christensen emerged from her seclusion on the opening night of the show, just in time. Still, she slept at the hotel for the remainder of the productions to prevent any additional close calls.
At the end of October, Christensen returned to her apartment. Her return to normalcy did not last long, though. She developed COVID-19 symptoms and tested positive a few weeks later. It was back into isolation again; her roommates did the same.
“It was not necessarily anyone’s fault, but it just sucked. You still feel responsible,” said Christensen, describing the process of contact-tracing her inner circle.
With a considerable chunk of her semester spent sequestered away from the university and into isolated spaces, Christensen stood to lose her connection with the campus. It turned out better than she expected.
“In my own personal experience, I felt very cared for by Dordt.” Christensen said. “It was very personable.”
Christensen received daily text messages from Angela Perigo of campus ministries, sometimes with voice memos of encouragement included. Since the beginning of the semester, the campus ministries team had directed their resources towards reaching out to students in quarantine or isolation. They offered Bible studies, prayer sessions, and times to just hang out.
“We lived fruitfully together in community.” Hoekstra said. “It was as good as I think it could have gone.”
For Hoekstra and the other decision-makers at Dordt, including the COVID-19 task force, their planning for the year always hung in the balance. It was difficult to know anything with surety. They could only see a couple weeks out at a time but calling off the in-person semester before it even began was never an option.
Leading up to and throughout the semester, Hoekstra communicated to students the goal of the university to conduct the final day of exams in-person on December 11, having done so all the sixteen weeks prior. To track the feasibility of this target, the COVID-19 task force met weekly and the administrative cabinet two to three times a week.
“I knew it was the right goal to have, but I also didn’t know what percentage it was realistic.” Hoekstra said. “We picked a road that we felt balanced responsibility for some degree of case count with some degree of normalcy.”
Only ten days into the start of classes, though, the number of active reported COVID-19 cases on campus reached 28, with 78 in quarantine or isolation. This early spike ended up tallying as the highest total case count for the semester. At the time, Hoekstra doubted if he and the university had made the correct decision.
His bi-weekly interactions with local health officials and the governor’s office assured him not to lose faith, however, and to place trust in Dordt’s virus containment measures. They recommended over the summer, on top of general guidelines on social distancing, a COVID-19 testing system, which Dordt put into place.
In order to keep up with the quicker-than-realized spread of cases on campus and in the surrounding community, Dordt also made available the Alumni House and local hotels when the designated area in West Hall for quarantined students filled up in days.
These COVID-19 restrictions came at a cost too. With the expenses of off-campus lodging and food, personal protective equipment, and a contact-tracing system that required additional hires to manage it, Dordt poured an estimated three quarters to one million dollars into this semester. If Dordt wanted to replicate a testing system like that of larger schools on the east coast, one that tests half its student body weekly, this number would multiply to four or five million.
“It was always wanting to be a responsible member of the broader community that we are responsible for as Christians.” Hoekstra said.
It was this guiding philosophy that also led Dordt to divert from their originally stated goal and cut the in-person semester short at Thanksgiving break. With the fourteen-day quarantines awaiting Canadian and Illinoisans students upon their returns, on top of the potential health risk of hundreds of individuals traveling to and from campus, the pitfalls seemed to outweigh the benefits.
Hoekstra knows the disappointment of not reaching December 11 but reflects on the semester largely defined by the COVID-19 pandemic in a positive light. He thinks the Christian worldviews held by students enabled them to remain calm and vigilant through uncertainty.
“It was a virus that we couldn’t control, and people did their level best and I’m just grateful.” Hoekstra said.