Last week, along with the rest of Adrian College’s nearly 2,000 students, Hunter Causie returned to in-person classes.
A COVID-19 outbreak in late August has resulted in more than 11% of students and staff testing positive for the disease, and Causie, a senior, is one of them. For two weeks, classes were held online.
A first-generation college student from Jackson, Causie came to Adrian to wrestle, but had some disagreements with the coach and quit the team. He says his fraternity, TKE, is what kept him there.
He was on campus all this summer, living in the house, working. He and a friend mostly kept to themselves. He says that until August, it felt like COVID didn’t exist.
“And then 12 other guys move in, and four of them start partying, and then one gets COVID,” he said. “And then I've been here all summer, and I get COVID."
Causie followed the school’s policy and went into isolation, leaving his room only to go to the bathroom and retrieve the boxed meals that campus security delivered twice a day.
Often they got his order wrong — which he understands. At the outbreak’s peak, 133 infected students were in isolation on the small campus, all of them receiving the same delivery service.
But Causie says it didn’t sit right.
“It's like, we're paying for this,” he said. “And it just feels like we're just getting taken advantage of. Like, this is my fourth year here and I just feel like I'm being exploited for my money."
Causie’s neighbors see things a bit differently.
Next door, in the apartment cluster known as CVS (for campus view south), five soccer players tested positive for COVID. Kristen Page, a senior on the team, was one of them.
“Campus safety was super helpful, and our coaches were helpful, and the athletic department,” she said. “So that was awesome."
Athletes currently practicing have access to regular testing. But Causie had to drive an hour to get his test, to Ypsilanti. His insurance wouldn’t cover the local options.
The perceived disparity in testing availabilty on campus is just one reason why some say there’s a gap between athletes and other students at Adrian.
To understand this, it helps to look back over Adrian’s recent history. As other small private colleges have struggled, Adrian has more than doubled its enrollment in the last 15 years.
Its president wrote a book about his strategy: Crisis in Higher Education: A Plan to Save Small Liberal Arts Colleges in America. Its basic idea is to attract more applicants by offering more athletic programs.
And at Adrian, that strategy has worked. 61% of its undergrads are athletes; 2020 is yet another year of record enrollment for the college.
But those results haven’t benefited all corners of campus. In recent years, budgets for academic departments have stagnated or declined.
Chemistry professor Keith McCleary says that in his teaching lab, he still has to project over the drone of a faulty HVAC system.
“Because of the way that the air is blowing it’s hard to measure out a powder onto a balance,” he said. “Those are kind of fundamental problems."
Concerned over Adrian’s financial health, the faculty recently voted to remove both the president and academic dean.
That vote is symbolic, and was rejected preemptively by Adrian’s board of trustees, who said they support the current administration “without equivocation” after hearing about the faculty’s plans.
But it points to widespread frustration with a culture sustained by the school’s business model.
As for testing specifically, president Jeffrey Docking says that all students have access to it — free, and on campus.
“Even non-athletes are tested,” he said. “Those that are symptomatic get tested. Any student that has concerns about their health can get tested."
Causie and other students Michigan Radio spoke with, who had to drive up to an hour to get tested, didn’t get that message.
Docking also said the school will now test asymptomatic contacts of people who have COVID, which comes in response to urging from the Lenawee County health department.
The goal there, of course, is to keep the virus from escaping the Adrian campus, and protect the health of the surrounding community.
Mary and Bob Bertram live just a block from campus. They have for 27 years.
For nearly seven years, since the birth of their grandson, they’ve been following pandemic-level precautions. He was born prematurely, with weak lungs.
“So something like this, he would be very, very at risk,” said Mary. “And he stayed with me a month this summer. Luckily, he was gone before people returned. But should they need help? Should we go back to watch him? We have to stay healthy.”
As of Tuesday, local health officials say only one other COVID case in Lenawee County has been traced to the outbeak at Adrian College. They've also drawn a connection to cases in three other counties.
The Bertrams live next door to another Adrian fraternity, where, they’ve been relieved to see, activity has been quieter than in previous years.