Student-led coalition offers peer-to-peer coronavirus education at Western Michigan University

KALAMAZOO, MI — A group of students are working to make sure bracing for an on-campus shutdown is not a challenge Western Michigan University and its students will need to face.

Around 30 students now make up what is known as the COVID-19 Student Coalition, a student-led group that serves as a coronavirus education resource and aims to reduce the spread of the virus on WMU’s campus, leaders of the group said an interview with MLive Wednesday.

Keeping a safe and healthy student population has never been more important for institutions across the state, Western being no exception. The coalition is working to inform their fellow students about practicing mitigation strategies in student oriented, peer-to-peer style.

In September, members of the coalition visited a socially-distanced open mic event on-campus, passing out face masks donated by a local business. The group has been creating student-centered infographics and posting information to its social channels.

Chemistry graduate student Melanie Mitchell, who spearheaded the COVID-19 Student Coalition back in August, now serves as the group’s coordinator.

Mitchell said her idea to organize the student-led safety effort came from a shared desire to finish the semester. without the hiccups that University of Michigan, Grand Valley State University and other institutions that have faced, like stay-at-home orders and partial shutdowns resulting from rising coronavirus cases.

“When (the laboratory) finally opened again, I wanted it to stay open,” Mitchell said. “I wanted the college experience to stay intact and I’m also for a teaching assistant, so I wanted students to stay safe and not get me sick, and I didn’t want to get them sick.”

As Western’s campus was closed to students throughout the summer, graduate students who would traditionally stay in Kalamazoo to complete research inside the school’s laboratories were shut out, causing some students to fall behind on research that requires the institution’s labs to complete.

The university has reiterated it will make targeted closures as needed and has no plans of a complete shutdown should coronavirus cases surge, but members of the coalition say they are hoping to minimize the spread of the virus so that closures aren’t being considered.

Alison Yelsma, a public health student and chair of the coalition, said she made her way to the coalition through mutual friends and classmates who shared her desire to return to in-person classes in a safe and low-risk way. President of Eta Sigma Gamma, a health education organization on WMU’s campus, Yelsma volunteered to help Mitchell with her efforts back in August.

“The biggest part was just getting students to really grasp the messaging coming from our higher ups — I was getting a lot of questions from peers just being in public health, where I was using more student friendly language, and I saw I could really help Melanie and it just made sense for other health students to be involved,” Yelsma said.

Yelsma plans to become an epidemiologist after she finishes school. Studying public health during a worldwide pandemic creates unmatched experiential learning opportunities and provides real-world problems students have been able to help the university solve, she said.

“To be able to have real experience I think is great because even though I’m not graduating until December 2021, most of my peers are graduating in the spring, so they’re going to be off doing public health stuff taking this experience with them,” Yelsma said. “For those of us who want to be epidemiologists, like me, being able to do contact tracing and get that experience — I would never have been able to get that if it wasn’t for COVID.”

Robert Bensley, a professor of public health and one of the coalition’s advisors, agreed.

“This group has got more experience in real life public health than any other group I’ve taught in my 27 years at Western because of the pandemic,” Bensley said.

Developing and implementing committees, task forces and coalitions are a big part of public health, Bensley said. He said there is no way to replicate the way the coalition has engaged with its peers this semester through a lecture or in a classroom environment.

“The cool thing about this whole coalition is that students want to be part of the solution,” Bensley said. “From the perspective of empowering or owning that process, they can engage in connecting with their peers on campus under the shared mission of ‘We don’t want to go remote, we don’t want to shut down like other universities.

“I think what they’re doing is working with the messaging the university is providing, following along those same guidelines, but putting it in student lingo and on social media that relate to students,” Bensley said.

Despite the rise of coronavirus cases on Western’s campus, members of the coalition say they have seen almost universal compliance from students while in classes and on campus. Yelsma said they assume students are spreading the virus once they let their guard down, at off-campus gatherings.

WMU reported 34 new positive cases stemming from Thursday, Oct. 15 and Friday Oct. 16, pushing the total number infections to 711 since students returned in August.

According to county health data, 18 to 24 year-olds made up 37% of cases reported from Sept. 13 to Oct. 13. The younger population also drove the an earlier surge in cases at the beginning of September, health officials said.

“What we’re really trying to do for students who we know go out on weekends, is to spread the message of the importance of safety when they do go out — we obviously don’t want them to — but if they do, to encourage masks, keep your beverage to yourself and social distance,” Yelsma said.

The coalition is encouraging students that are interested in getting involved to visit the group’s Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat.

Also on MLive:

Western Michigan University surpasses 700 total coronavirus cases

2-week stay-in-place order issued by health department for University of Michigan students

Coronavirus cases surge in University of Michigan residence halls

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