Many universities and colleges across the nation, including Allegheny College, have experienced challenges related to the pandemic and spikes in positive COVID-19 cases upon reopening campuses this year.
According to the New York Times, more than 35 colleges and universities have reported at least 1000 positive cases on their campuses and more than 230 have reported at least 100 positive cases. Nationally, over 160,000 positive cases have been reported on college campuses since July. In Pennsylvania alone, there are over 4300 confirmed cases throughout 81 of the colleges in the state. Allegheny College is ranked 68/81 in the number of reported positive cases of COVID-19 at Pennsylvania colleges and universities.
“(My biggest concern) was the health and wellbeing of all of our campus community,” President Hilary Link said. “I have personal responsibility for every single person who works on this campus and who attends classes here amidst a global pandemic — that is a really heavy responsibility. Underlying all of my decision-making has been ‘is this the right thing for our students, faculty, staff and the college?’”
Since reopening campus in August, the college has reported a cumulative total of 29 positive COVID-19 cases — less than 1% infection rate. Neighboring institutions, such as Edinboro University and Thiel College, have reported less than five positive cases on their campuses.
“While we have had students test positive, we have had an unprecedented collaboration between the Allegheny College Health Agency (ACHA), college leadership, faculty, and students resulting in less than 1% of our student population with COVID-19 at any time,” wrote ACHA Medical Director Gabrielle Morrow in an update to the campus community on Sept. 14. “The current positivity rate is 0.1%.”
The college has 1,700 students enrolled this academic year out of which 1,300 are residential, 70 are commuting and 250 are nonresidential, according to Link. These numbers are approximations.
Allegheny College has tested 3,589 residential students and has begun systematically testing cohorts of students every week.
Prior to systematic testing, the college conducted a second round of COVID-19 testing with PCR tests. The objective of the second round of testing was to identify any positive cases that did not appear in the first round due to the incubation period of COVID-19.
“A lot of (the accuracy of testing) depends on when you test people,” Link said. “That is why for our initial move-in testing, we did a second round of tests because PCR tests in particular are most effective and accurate between 5-14 days after people have been exposed.”
The second round of testing identified a cluster of 18 positive cases linked to off-campus travel, resulting in a spike in positive cases on campus.
“What went through our minds (after the spike in cases) was a sense of real fear that, despite all of our efforts to keep the campus community safe, that something seeming so small had the potential to spread in such a way that could have closed the entire campus,” Link said. “We knew that it could have gone either way. If students had not stepped up that weekend and really understood the depth of the situation and if the test results that we got back at the end of the weekend that were done earlier that week would have come back positive, we would be in a very different position.”
Before move-in, the college requested that every student self-isolate for at least four days to limit any last minute exposure to COVID-19.
“(The college) recognizes that in a student’s last days before returning to campus the last thing they are going to want to do is completely isolate themselves and not see their friends,” Link added. “So we did the first round and we knew that we would pick up more positives in the second round, if there were any, and that is precisely what happened … (The college’s) biggest goal was to protect the safety of our campus community and also the local community. We knew that we needed to do a second round to ensure to the absolute extent possible that there were no undetected cases incubating that we were not catching.”
Systematic rapid testing began Monday, Sept. 21, at Edwards Hall, announced Morrow and the ACHA. Results will be conclusive within 15 minutes of the testing.
“We as of Monday (Sept. 21) rolled out asymptomatic but systematic surveillance of our whole population again — students, faculty and staff,” Link said. “We are testing 60 cohorts of people a day and therefore we will run through our entire population in about 35-37 days.”
The objective of the systematic testing is not to be randomized, but representational of groupings on campus.
“The idea was not to (conduct testing) in a randomized way, but to create groupings that had representation from all of the dormitories, athletic teams and then any other cohorts that we know entails students spending time together … a fraternity, for example,” Link added. “We cannot capture one representative of every single grouping on campus, but over the course of like three to four days, the idea is to capture representation from every possible group.”
The cohorts are not randomized because cohort grouping enables the college to identify potential clusters of positive COVID-19 cases.
“If the tests come back negative, we just continue to cycle through the whole population,” Link clarified. “If, however, we see a positive that gives us the information so we know that we probably need to shift around (cohort selection) for the next couple of days and actually put in people from (the positive) person’s residence hall or people who play on a sports team with that person.”
During the fourth week of operations, the college has reported zero new cases and has no students actively in isolation. One student is currently in quarantine; this means that the students tested negative for COVID-19, but contact tracing indicated they were exposed to a community member who tested positive.
In an email to the campus community on Sept. 30, the ACHA announced that the Pennsylvania Department of Health has created a COVID Alert PA mobile app, which alerts users to potential exposure.
“The college is not requiring individuals to download the app, but we encourage everyone to sign up for this powerful new tool that can be used to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” ACHA wrote.
Provost and Dean of the College Ron Cole, Vice President of Student Life and Dean of Students April Thompson and Director of Athletics and Recreation Bill Ross sent an email to the campus community, on Friday, Sept. 25, acknowledging the college being open for a month and expressing gratitude to the student body and to faculty and staff.
“We are already in week four of the semester,” they wrote. “We continue to feel so fortunate that we have been able to reopen campus while also providing the opportunity for some students to continue their studies remotely. While we know that this semester is challenging in many ways, we are grateful and proud of the work by staff and faculty to make this a reality, and we are equally proud of your dedication for continuing your education and following the health and safety guidelines. We extend our heartfelt thanks to everyone who has been doing their part so that we can keep the campus open as planned.”
The email also requested students continue to follow health and safety guidelines both on and off campus.
“We encourage no travel outside of the local area, but if traveling outside of Crawford County is necessary, then please complete the Off-Campus Travel Form and remember that students who leave campus overnight are required to quarantine upon return to campus,” Thompson wrote. “Travel into the local community is OK (grocery shopping, appointments), but anyone leaving campus must follow the same mitigation efforts as on campus (wear a mask, keep physical distancing, avoid crowds, wash hands).”
Residential students signed the Gator Pledge upon arrival to campus in August. The pledge outlines a set of safety protocols that all members must comply with such as masking, social distancing and frequent hand washing during this semester. These guidelines apply both on and off campus and any student found violating these guidelines are subject to administrative action.
“The biggest fear has always been that a (positive) case goes undetected and spreads as we have seen happen at a large number of schools,” Link added. “What we have seen is that (COVID-19) can get out of hand very quickly if you are not very on top of it and very strict with how you handle it.”
According to Link, the college has received approximately 200 violation reports out of which 60 were determined to be actual violations. Every determined violation is reviewed by the administration and handled accordingly to the severity of the offense. Less than 10 students have been sent home to complete the semester entirely remote.
“Students have taken this so seriously, and they have been amazing,” Link added. “They really care deeply and recognize that it is a tremendous advantage to be on campus. Students have really worked with (the college) to help make (remaining open) happen.”
Link also expressed gratitude and praise for the ACHA medical staff and counseling and development staff.
“Trae Yeckly who runs the counseling center has done a spectacular job making sure that students are not feeling alienated and isolated,” Link said. “We know that this is so hard and so stressful, but our counseling center is working so hard.”
Students concerned for their mental well-being are encouraged to schedule an appointment with one of the counseling and development staff.
With flu season approaching, the college has begun to purchase flu vaccines for the Winslow Health Center. Due to a vaccine shortage, the college has only been able to reserve 50 flu vaccines, however, the college is in the process of ordering more, Link said.
“We are encouraging everyone who is willing and able to get a flu vaccine,” Link added. “We have (flu vaccines) but we do not have them in the number that we obviously would like to have.”
Students can purchase flu vaccines at the local CVS store in Meadville as well.
“Honestly, the biggest success (this semester) is that classes are going on and students are here enjoying being with each other and in the classroom if they chose to be,” Link said. “To be honest, the college has actually done a lot right. We have managed to contain a cluster, which many schools have not done. We have had cases and have shown that we know how to test strategically, contact trace strategically, isolate and quarantine correctly and care for the students in isolation and quarantine effectively so that they can go back to the student population.”
The college is optimistic about remaining open for the rest of the semester, Link indicated. She also mentioned that the college will remain vigilant in its approach to handling the evolving situation with COVID-19.
“If I had to judge based on what has gone on in the last five weeks since students started coming back to campus, that gives me a tremendous sense of optimism — not just for the remainder of the fall semester, but for how we might take what we have learned and do it even better in the spring semester,” Link said. “This is a very complicated virus, this is a very complicated global pandemic and this is truly an unprecedented moment in which to have a college open, however, everything we have going for us — ACHA, students, faculty, local community, testing and the support of the board — gives me great optimism that we can actually do this.”