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As colleges and universities prepare to open, Springfield’s top public health official made a plea to students Thursday to be “civically minded” and protect themselves and others during the pandemic.

Clay Goddard, director of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department, urged the students to get creative.

“I want to start by saying ‘Welcome back, we’re happy to have you back but just as your university has planned and prepared for COVID-19, we need you to do the same,'” he said. “We need you to get creative and find ways to spend time with your friends that don’t mean big groups of people that are close together. We need you to have a plan for how you’re going to navigate this new normal this coming fall.”

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Clay Goddard, director of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department (Photo: Nathan Papes/Springfield News-Leader)

He added: “We know that you’re up for the challenge.”

Classes start next week for Missouri State, Drury and Evangel universities as well as Cox College. The following week, on Aug. 24, will mark the start of Ozarks Technical Community College and Springfield Public Schools.

“You’ll find ways to live, to work and to socialize that keep you and the people you care about from the further spread of illness,” he said. “I have every confidence that you will find solutions that the rest of us will copy.”

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At a media briefing Thursday, Goddard said the recent spike in COVID-19 cases has been driven, in part, by individuals living in close proximity in the Greene County Jail and long-term care facilities.

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MSU and downtown Springfield from the air on June 9, 2018. (Photo: Nathan Papes/Springfield News-Leader)

He said the health department has worked closely with higher education officials since mid-March, when institutions started to move in-person classes online, shutting parts of the campus, and emptying out most residence halls.

“I have been so impressed and encouraged by how universities and colleges have adjusted and evolved as our understanding of how COVID-19 has advanced,” he said. “Our community’s educators are doing all that they can to keep our students safe and healthy. This is so important.”

Goddard said colleges and universities are part of the “fundamental fabric” of the city. They are major employers and draw thousands of young people from across the U.S. and beyond to the community each year.

He said given the nature of the coronavirus and how it spreads, it is likely inevitable that there will be cases on college campuses. However, he believes that can be mitigated by individuals who wear masks, wash their hands frequently, and follow appropriate social distancing.

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“If we keep trying to return to normal and forget that we’re in a pandemic, this disease will continue to wreak havoc on our community,” he said.

In the past three weeks, the largest group of new COVID-19 cases has been among the age 20-29 cohort locally.

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In late March, when residents were under orders to stay at home as much as possible, there was limited traffic on South Avenue in downtown Springfield. (Photo: Andrew Jansen/News-Leader)

‘”There is some concern that that demographic in particular is rejecting some of these prevention messages,” he said. “That is a significant concern for us.”

Goddard warned against a “boomerang effect,” noting infected individuals in that cohort can expose parents, grandparents and co-workers with health issues.

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He praised local colleges for developing “robust plans” to prevent and respond to cases of COVID-19 but urged students to navigate the community as if each person they see or interact with is sick.

Students were urged to avoid crowded parties and bars and not to become complacent when gathering with friends. 

“If you keep going to large events and don’t properly wear masks and maintain physical distancing, the disease is going to continue to spread,” he said.

The Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce is expected to reach out to downtown bars and businesses frequented by college students to encourage compliance with the safety measures, including a capacity cap of 50 percent.

Goddard said if future spikes are traced to bars and other gathering spots, it may spur the creation of additional policies.

He acknowledged that emphasis placed on safeguarding the elderly or those with health issues early in the pandemic may have obscured the risk to young adults.

“There is no such thing as a safe age cohort to contract this illness,” he said. “Let’s do what we can to protect ourselves and protect those around us.”

Claudette Riley is the education reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to [email protected] and consider supporting vital local journalism by subscribing. Learn more by visiting

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