Admissions resume campus tours with safety measures

Following the end of the campus-wide quarantine, admissions began hosting campus tours for prospective students, despite COVID-19 concerns.

“One hundred percent of our processes have changed,” said Executive Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Meg Ryan.“We are trying to replicate the campus visit experience for our visitors that is similar to the experience that all of our current students had the option to participate in. (However), our first priority is following Allegheny policy and ensuring the safety of the campus community, especially our current students who serve as tour guides.”

Since the campus-wide quarantine was lifted on Sept. 15, 124 prospective students and their families have toured the college, according to Ryan. Prospective students have not been permitted to have an overnight visit this semester. 

While admissions have hosted 124 families in the last month, the college is adamant that they are taking all necessary precautions to avoid COVID-19 exposure and community spread. 

“Our restrictions and guidelines start from the registration process,” Ryan clarified. “In the registration form, we request that (students) only bring one (guest), but two are allowed. We can make exceptions for more than that because we, of course, want to be understanding of families who might need child care and are not able to afford or have the ability to leave family members at home … In that case, we might close another visit that time so that we do not have other people visiting at that time.”

Touring families are scheduled at different times and tours are limited to only two families at once. Anyone who attends a campus tour must obey all safety protocols, including masking, social distancing and filling out the mandatory health screening prior to the visit. The health screening confirms that they have not been exposed to COVID-19 and have not been in an area where the virus is heavily present. Ryan acknowledged that, while the visitors have not undergone campus quarantine, they are expected to self-isolate prior to arrival on campus as part of their mandatory compliance with college policies.

“In addition to that registration form, all students and their visitors are agreeing to comply with all of our policies such as wearing a face covering,” Ryan added. “We also preface that policies can change so when they arrive on campus, they are going to have to comply with any policies that are in effect that day.”

There have been no reports of visitors failing to comply with all safety procedures, according to Ryan. Any visitor that does not have a mask is provided with one from the college. Visitors normally bring their own face mask to the campus tours, but the option is provided.

“We had several discussions in our committee meetings about what is the right way to have discussions about face coverings, and we have prepared our students to be ready for that conversation, which can be uncomfortable,” Ryan said. “We have not had a family refuse to participate. Everyone is taking it very seriously, and the overwhelming majority have brought their own face masks.”  

Tours are not provided to all prospective students and families due to potential COVID-19 exposure.

“When you think about where folks are coming from, there are limitations placed on where people can come from (to visit campus),” Senior Vice President for Enrollment & Dean of Admissions Cornell LeSane said. “It is not as if we are having visitors from anywhere and everywhere. Ultimately, if someone is coming from a CDC-restricted area, they are not allowed to come (to campus).”

All campus tour requests are reviewed by college officials to verify that students are not coming from restricted areas and have completed their health screening. Families that show up to the college without completing registration must wait outside until their information can be reviewed. 

“If we do have people who show up (on-campus) for visits and we are at capacity, we tell them ‘you cannot come in,’” LeSane said. “There is a sign on the front door that basically says, ‘if you are just showing up for a visit, make a call (to the college)’ — this is so we can at that point figure out if this is a person we can allow in our space. We are certainly doing our due diligence in trying to make sure we are not missing any protocols or guidelines set forth.”

Gator guides are students who tour prospective families around campus. Like many aspects of this semester, this position has been impacted by the new procedures. 

“It is definitely interesting (being a gator guide during COVID-19),” Tin Le, ’21, said. “We are taking a lot of precautions. Usually, people can just walk in and do a tour whenever they want, which is why we normally have three or four gator guides around. While we still keep three or four gator guides around (the admissions office), people must call and make an appointment beforehand — we do not accept walk-ins (this year).”

The college is also working on making a virtual tour as well as virtual room showings, Le said. While Le feels as though the college is taking adequate steps to ensure his safety during campus, he did mention that there is always the possibility that a prospective family lied during registration. 

“Families could lie,” Le said. “They could just say that they quarantined before coming up (to campus) so it is basically not so much me trusting admissions (with my safety), but more so me trusting the families that are coming to visit the campus.”

Gator guides are allowed to refuse to serve as a guide if they feel uncomfortable or unsafe due to COVID-19 concerns. 

“I do not feel uncomfortable – granted I have only given one (tour) this semester just because there are not a lot of families touring right now,” Le said. “Any time someone is uncomfortable giving a tour to a certain family, they usually just turn (the family) around and bring them back to the admissions house and cut the tour short.”

The college has also taken precautions to avoid risks associated with being a campus tour guide. 

“We recognize that a student may feel comfortable one day, and the situation can change so we tried to reinforce that with our students,” Ryan said. “We have taken some (precautionary) measures; the tour is 95% outside. The tour guide and the guests are required to maintain physical distance and wear face coverings. While they do travel through two buildings, it is a quick in-and-out, which should limit the exposure to shared air indoors for an extended period of time.”

The tours are mainly outside, but there are two permitted building visits — one at Brooks Hall and the other at Carr Hall. Visitors are not permitted to enter the dining hall portion of Brooks Hall, Ryan clarified. 

“When we put this plan together, it was approved that these were the places (a visitor) can go and even has directions that they can go (when inside),” LeSane said. “It is not us just saying we can go into any space and roam for hours — it is in-and-out. We have the safety of the campus in mind (during tours) first and foremost.”

The college has also limited the amount of families allowed on tour with the same guide at any given time to limit potential COVID-19 exposure.

“We have a one-to-one or one-to-two prospective families at a time limit,” Ryan said. “We have spoken to (other colleges) who are hosting campus visits, and one colleague said that they cap their tours at 15 families. Fifteen families can mean 30-40 people so we do not do that. Our guides are with one or two families who might have one or two guests with them.”

In addition to modified campus tours, the spaces where students are interviewed have also been altered to accommodate social distancing and new safety protocols.

“We restructured our entire lobby so there are no interviews happening in the spaces that we would typically use (for interviews), meaning the offices,” LeSane said. “If you go into our lobby right now, there is a space in the far corner where a family can be and in another space where students can be (interviewed). We also limit the number of visitors at one time.”

The plan to reconvene campus visitation following the campus-wide quarantine was the result of several deliberations among faculty members, staff and current students. 

“President (Hilary) Link convened a committee meeting over the summer to look at in-person classes and in-person (events) for this fall,” LeSane said. “One of the committees was focused on having visitors for admissions … The purpose of the committee was to exam the necessary protocols to host in-person visitors on campus to create an actionable plan moving forward, which was ultimately approved.”

According to LeSane, the proposal was created by a committee of faculty, staff and current students and then shared with senior administration and several other committees, and the plan was later approved.

In addition to the plan created by the committee, the college hosted preliminary campus tours over the summer to determine how many families can be safely accommodated on campus at any given time. 

“For the campus visit itself, we started in the summer with very limited campus visits to see how we could do it safely,” Ryan said. “(We) even prevented campus visitors from overlapping so we essentially had a single-family visiting at a time. We have grown comfortable with this and know that we can keep the physical distance and have one student on tour while one student is meeting with the admission office. While we have increased capacity somewhat, we still have very limited numbers of students on campus each day.” 

During the summer, the college allowed four families per day at opposite times — two in the morning and two in the afternoon, Ryan added. 

“I think our visitors understand that what we are doing is not something that all schools are able to offer so there is a level of appreciation, and I would argue that there is even respect for the protocols and guidelines that we set forth,” LeSane said. “We have had no challenges and no issues with families abiding by our protocols, if anything (students) are coming in saying, ‘I am happy to do this’ because (the college) is allowing them to visit a school that may be one of their top choices.” 

The college reassures students with concerns regarding the decision to allow campus tours to occur again that this procedure is done in a strategic manner to limit any potential exposure to COVID-19.

 “I can understand why someone can have some concern without the context of how we are bringing visitors to campus. We are doing it in a very safe way. If we were not and we were sitting here saying, ‘nope, there is no health screening or no face coverings’ then we would have a problem. We are (allowing tours) in a very strategic and pragmatic way, and we are doing it on a small scale. We are not putting families or current students at risk in the way that we are managing this process.”

For current students who may be concerned, LeSane asks that current students sympathize with prospective students.

“(You) can remember being high school students, and the importance of actually being able to visit a campus,” LeSane said. “I do not think that it is fair to ask students to make a decision on where they are going to spend the next four years site unseen — there is already enough stress and pressure on prospective students going through this process with testing being virtual only to add on that and say, ‘in addition, you are not allowed to see (our) campus.’ (Campus tours) enable students to make an informed choice for (them) to see if this is a place that (they) can see as (their) home for the next four years.”