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Local health officials brace for return of college students during COVID-19 pandemic

As K-State students start arriving back into town before the fall semester starts Aug. 17, health officials are waiting to see how that affects the local coronavirus case numbers.

Julie Gibbs, director of the Riley County Health Department, said she will be watching close to see how the return of college students — which started this weekend — will impact the area.

“I think we’re all a little anxious for the next two weeks as far as what our numbers are going to look like,” she said. “We’re always concerned with hospital capacity and overwhelming our healthcare system, here in the county and also in the region. With the safeguards that we have in place and with our consistent messaging, we can hopefully prevent a lot of (increase) from happening.”

She said she is in daily contact with local hospitals and capacity is fine at the moment, but that can change.

“We expected students to come back as early as this weekend — I think we are prepared for that,” she said.

With students coming in from all over the state and the nation where policies and laws vary, Gibbs said it is imperative they know what the rules are here.

“It’s going to look different from county to county, and certainly from state to state,” she said.

In an attempt to keep COVID-19 at bay, Manhattan and K-State have mandatory mask policies in place and restrictions on gatherings and bar activity.

“Just try to avoid crowded places,” Gibbs said. “I think that’s a big reminder to all of our college students. It’s nice to come back and mingle with friends again and see people again that you haven’t seen in a long time. But certainly, just try to avoid crowds and wear your mask when you’re out.”

Alex Owens, a K-State junior from Naples, Florida, moved into her rental on Friday. Alex, who comes from a place with 9,662 COVID-19 cases and 124 deaths in the county, said she’s not too nervous about her current situation.

“I feel like college students have the ability to understand that they have to do these things to be able to enjoy something that we all love,” she said. “College sucks, but it is also amazing. I think a lot of students are going to try their best to follow the rules — wear masks and social distance.”

Her mother, Michelle Owens, also said she’s not too concerned, especially not enough to have her daughter miss out on the college experience.

“She can get sick anyplace,” Michelle said. “She might as well enjoy herself.”

Gibbs said students should be cognizant of who their roommates are, where they travel and the potential for contracting the virus in the home space.

“Really get to know your roommates, and by that, I mean have conversations with them about where have they been over the summer,” she said. “Get a good idea of any symptoms that they’re having or where have they traveled, so that you know them and know what to expect from each other. You’re living together, and you want to keep everyone safe.”

In the living space, she said to make sure there is always hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies handy.

Michelle and Alex said K-State also made adjustments for the dorm residents — changes that could account for some people not returning to campus this fall.

A big part of the college experience is dorm life and having roommates, they said. Now the rooms are single occupancy, which takes away from that experience.

Alex and Jessica Cude, her friend and fellow K-State student, said they both know people who are not coming back to the university this year, and not just because of a fear of the virus.

“I know three people that … just moved to online school,” Alex said. “And I’ve heard of other people … that just can’t afford it anymore because they haven’t been working.”

Officials confirm body found at Konza was missing woman

Riley County police on Friday confirmed that the body recently discovered at Konza Prairie was a woman who had been reported missing.

Riley County Police Department officials said autopsy and dental analysis results received Friday showed the woman found was Nicole Grothe, 38, of Manhattan.

Police said there is no indication of “suspicious circumstances” surrounding the death, but the investigation by RCPD and the Army Criminal Investigative Division is ongoing.

Law authorities on July 22 posted public notices for information regarding the whereabouts of Grothe, who was a warrant officer at Fort Riley. She had not been heard from since the previous weekend, but people said they thought she had last been on the Konza Prairie Nature Trail. Search teams found her body along the trail later that morning.

Grothe had been assigned to Fort Riley since March. She also previously served in the Republic of Korea with the 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.

“It is with great sadness we acknowledge confirmation from law enforcement that the body of Warrant Officer Nicole Grothe, one of our soldiers, was found in an area she loved to hike,” Col. Bryan Chivers, commander of 1st Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, said in a statement. “A self-starter, Nicole arrived to our unit in March and immediately integrated into our operations section.

“She embraced our team-of-teams philosophy and quickly earned the trust of her section. Nicole’s commitment to our unit was instantly evident and we will cherish the time we served with her. Our condolences go out to Nicole’s family, friends, and teammates.”

Grothe entered the Army in 2007 from Lacey, Washington.

Chris Melgares, left, races with Joe Moore on Saturday during the Brew 2 Shoe 10K run. Moore finished first at 29:10, and Melgares finished second at 29:27.

Callie Caselman finishes the 5K run with her dog. Nearly 300 people ran in the 12th annual event, which celebrates Manhattan Running Company’s anniversary.

Community college enrollment off to slow start because of COVID-19

Community colleges find themselves in a state of limbo as COVID-19 continues to disrupt the normal enrollment process.

Cloud County Community College, which has its main campus in Concordia and offers classes in Geary County, is seeing a slump in fall enrollment, officials said.

However, summer enrollment increased this year compared to 2019. At the Concordia campus, enrollment went up from 79 students to 108; it went up from 72 to 103 at the Geary County campus; and the online enrollment went up from 418 to 462, said Pedro Leite, vice president for Academic Affairs and Student Success.

While it is too early to know how COVID-19 will affect the 2020 fall semester, he said it appears that initial numbers are down from last year.

“We are still enrolling students so, it is (too) early for us to project how enrollment will end up,” he said on Thursday. “As of today, we are slightly behind as compared to the same period last year.”

He attributes the decline to the changes in starting dates at colleges, universities and high schools.

“Students are not sure what to expect,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to communicate with current and prospective students about measures that we have in place to assure their safety and try to have a normal semester as we possibly can.”

Students can enroll up to the first week of classes, which starts Aug. 19. The last day for on-campus classes is scheduled for Nov. 24. From Nov. 30 to Dec. 10, all classes and final exams are expected to move to an online format.

Highland Community College officials weren’t available Friday to speak about their enrollment numbers.

At Fort Riley, where the military base’s Education Center houses several universities and colleges, Shirley Avant-Ferguson, education services officer, said some classes will start Monday, but overall interest is down.

“We’re not doing as much as we would do because of the social distancing, and people are still unsure, but we’re doing okay,” she said.

The first classes to kick off the new semester are the leadership skill enhancement courses offered through Barton County Community College.

Avant-Ferguson said every classroom at the center has been arranged to facilitate social distancing. Following the Fort Riley mandates, masks are required and people are required to wash their hands as they enter any building on post.

Outside of Barton, the other schools are delaying their classes until their enrollment numbers go up or there is direction from the home campuses.

“K-State has gone to nothing at this time because they’re associated with the main campus, and they are holding off,” Avant-Ferguson said. “University of Mary — they will start (night) classes in September.”

The center’s other colleges are in flux as well.

Hutchison Community College will start its Certified Nurse Aide class on Aug. 10, and Southwestern College has not scheduled any of its classes for the fall semester.

Central Texas College is trying to do a combination of in-person and online classes “but they are not sure, they may have to postpone,” Avant-Ferguson said.

Upper Iowa University just started its enrollment, which will end Aug. 30 with an expectation to start classes the following day. Central Michigan University is putting all of its classes online.

Although exact numbers for enrollment are not available, Avant-Ferguson said they are down across the board.

“It’s all because of the uncertainty,” she said. “Our schools on post are still governed by their main college. Whatever their main college is doing is what they are following suit with here on post.”

Despite the uncertainty, the delays and changes, Avant-Ferguson said the education center is doing well under the circumstances.

“We are managing to put things in place with social distancing, with the mask — instructors as well as students washing their hands — we’re following all the procedures and we’re still being able to maintain college enrollment,” she said. “Even though (the numbers) are low, we’re able to maintain students.”

2020 VOTERS GUIDE | Kansas Senate District 22 Republican primary

Two Republicans are facing off Tuesday for the right to run against state Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan, in the November election.

Craig Bowser and Bryan Pruitt, both of Manhattan, are running for Kansas Senate District 22, which includes Riley and Clay counties and a portion of Geary County.

Hawk, the incumbent who is seeking a third term, has no Democratic challengers in the primary Tuesday.

Bowser is the chief executive officer of SAVE Farm, a Manhattan organization that assists members of the military transition into the agribusiness field. Bowser is an Army veteran himself, and he has served on the Kansas Commission for Emergency Planning and Response since 2018.

Pruitt is a former political consultant and conservative commentator. He worked for a political consulting firm during the 2000 Presidential campaign cycle and then a health care trade association. He has operated his own political and nonprofit event planning firm, as well as produced a conference for grassroots conservatives.

The Mercury emailed each candidate a set of the same questions. Here are the candidate’s responses. (Some answers have been edited for brevity and length).

If elected, what issue(s) would you give top priority to while in office?

Bowser: Our local economy is in bad shape. Kansas State University has furloughed over 1,800 staff members. Many small businesses in Manhattan have gone out of business. Families are struggling to make ends meet. I will use my proven business experience to bring new businesses and jobs to Manhattan. I will also focus on high quality education, maintaining our highways, and balanced budgets. I will bring new ideas and leadership to the Kansas State Senate.

Pruitt: Pro-Life first. We must pass the Constitutional amendment to allow the state legislature to enact common sense restrictions on abortion. Tax fairness for all and protect religious freedom. Return Fort Riley to full strength. Ensure K-State remains an in-person, on-campus learning experience that supports our local economy. Secure the Republican Party’s future.

While we are still in the midst of handling the coronavirus pandemic, what are your thoughts on current proposals for another stimulus package for Americans, and how would you address the ongoing issue of reopening local economies?

Bowser: Reopening should be handled at the local level. I believe local communities know best what should happen in their communities.

Pruitt: All stimulus should be oriented toward finding a vaccine and getting Americans back to work and our economy returned to full speed safely. We cannot live in fear, and our local communities have been amazing in coming together to protect one another. K-State must remain an in-person, on-campus learning experience that not only supports our student population but the broader economy. I oppose mandates because our communities have done what is recommended to wear masks when necessary and stay socially distant. Our small businesses should be allowed to reopen and return to safe, normal operations.

What are your thoughts on police reform and addressing racial or social inequity in our communities at the state level?

Bowser: I support our law enforcement agencies and strongly oppose defunding the police. I recognize that there needs to be accountability for bad actors in any profession, but especially those we trust to maintain law and order. Transparency and training are the key to better law enforcement.

Pruitt: Peaceful First Amendment expression should be celebrated, but destruction of public or private property cannot be tolerated and violent protesters must be prosecuted. Police reform should be handled at the local level. Bad cops need to go, and leadership must be held accountable. RCPD is a national leader in best practices for policing, and we are blessed to have them keeping our community safe.