For higher education in Utah County, 2020 was one heck of a ride.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit close to Brigham Young University when the first student contracted the virus in late March, and it led to some tough hurdles to overcome while also lending to amazing feats of adaptability.
From there, Utah Valley University held a drive-in commencement ceremony and was ranked No. 3 in the nation for best return on investment, BYU began to have trouble managing COVID-19 as students began returning to campus in the fall, and schools started to ramp up COVID-19 testing efforts after a state of emergency declaration.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many higher education institutions in Utah canceled their in-person graduation ceremonies. UVU had a different take on the right of passage for students, moving to a drive-in celebration.
The largest class in school history had a celebration unlike any other with a concert from The National Parks, a keynote address from Gail Miller, and a speech from President Astrid Tuminez. It was all finished with fireworks.
“While no one could have predicted the life-altering events that happened in late February and early March, we also didn’t recognize the strength, wisdom and tenacity we would deploy to not only cope, but to also thrive,” Miller said during her speech.
Tuminez ended the graduation ceremony by encouraging graduates to be courageous, to never give up and to remember they are “gritty Wolverines.”
BYU student tests positive for COVID-19
At the beginning of March, a person who had attended a BYU men’s basketball game tested positive for COVID-19, and soon, the Utah Jazz had two players test positive, leading to the postponement of the NBA season.
Less than two weeks after the initial news broke, the first BYU student tested positive for COVID-19.
The student was reportedly attending school and working on campus during the semester, according to a statement from the university. The student lived off campus, and the property manager had contacted the other residents let them know they could have potentially been exposed to the virus.
Managing COVID-19 cases a degree of difficulty at BYU
After a tumultuous start of the year for all fo the higher education institutions in Utah County, BYU faculty, staff and students returned to campus on Aug. 31 to a new look.
Students were required to wear masks and complete symptom checks through an app that also allowed for contract tracing.
After the first week of school, BYU had 80 students that self-reported their COVID-19 cases. Those numbers almost doubled just a couple of days later.
“Many of these have been tied to gatherings both on-campus and off-campus,” a statement from the school read. “We again encourage you to avoid non-compliant gatherings, wear masks and stay distanced.”
Residents, city officials and local business owners then began to express concern for the local economy, reflecting on how a possible shutdown on campus could impact local businesses.
“They rely on students, and it still impacts them because even though we have students here you still don’t have the same level of soulful interaction we would see,” said John Borget, director of administrative services for the city of Provo. “Some of the things they used to do all of the time, they don’t do anymore or they do less of it.”
Borget then related the possible shutdown of Utah County campuses in the fall to what happened when campuses were shutdown in the spring. Business owners, landlords and employees in downtown Provo struggled as a result.
UVU ranks third in nation for best return on investment
After celebrating its largest graduating class, UVU then ranked No. 3 in the nation for its return on investment.
Business Insider, an American financial and business news website, produced the ranking from a list of 4-year, bachelor’s degree-granting colleges and universities across the country.
“Students who attend school at UVU can count on an affordable, quality education and a significant return on their education,” said President Astrid S. Tuminez in a statement published by the university. “Business Insider’s No. 3 ranking is evidence of UVU’s commitment to maintaining affordability and accessibility to students, especially to those from traditionally underrepresented groups in the university’s service region.”
UVU, BYU prepare to ramp up student testing
After the state of Utah saw COVID-19 cases skyrocketing in the last quarter of 2020, Gov. Gary Herbert issued a state of emergency declaration in November.
That state of emergency came with the announcement that colleges in the state of Utah would need to start testing students weekly in order to continue in-person learning.
The testing included students who live on campus or those who attend one or more in-person classes per week. According to the state of emergency, the testing was encouraged to begin as soon as possible, but it was required to be implemented prior to the spring semester.
“BYU plans to comply with the executive order, which includes weekly testing for students who attend at least one in-person class and those who live in on-campus housing,” a statement from BYU officials read. “We believe that testing is an important component to successfully preventing and managing the spread of COVID-19. Since the beginning of fall semester, BYU has implemented a robust plan for testing.”
For UVU, the change was significant, considering it is the largest university in the state.
“We’ve been testing 500-600 students per week for the last three weeks,” said UVU spokesperson Scott Trotter. “The state has been giving us enough tests to do that, and so we’re already in the process of doing it but what changes everything is we have to increase the number of students being tested. As far as I can tell, we will have to test approximately 12,000 students a week.”
Resources for increased testing were made available by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the state of Utah.
Genelle Pugmire contributed to this story.