Just a week after returning to campus, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reported several “clusters” of COVID-19 cases across campus.
Seeing an unprecedented opportunity, The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s student-run media outlet, ran a bold headline in its August 17 issue shortly after learning about what had unfolded. It read:
“UNC has a clusterf–k on its hands.”
This is precisely what Springfield College will try to avoid as it opens up campus this week.
It is why administrators have been consulting Massachusetts public health professionals — even a group of them within the campus community — throughout the summer in order to reopen campus in the safest way possible and contain the virus.
“This planning started back in March,” Dr. Megan Harvey, Assistant Professor of Health Science, said. “We have been meeting consistently every week…We have gone through, I think, every detail.”
In addition to Dr. Harvey, administration worked with Dr. Sofija Zagarins, Assistant Professor of Public Health and Pamela Higgins, Associate Professor of Health Science to get an abundance of information leading up to the final decision.
“I’ve heard that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health says that we are better prepared than most colleges in our area,” Dr. Zagarins said. “I feel that the College did a really good job in trying hard to include a lot of people in these conversations.”
It will certainly be an abnormal fall semester, especially for the Springfield College’s faculty and staff.
The College stressed the importance of choice — students choosing whether or not to live on campus, and instructors choosing whether or not to conduct in-person classes.
Everyone has a different level of risk associated with the virus. Springfield, by revealing its elaborate reopening plan, is trying to create the safest environment possible.
“We’ve been able to study the virus all summer,” Higgins said. “Each decision that a student or faculty makes is going to impact a lot of people.”
That’s not to say the virus will disappear.
“There’s going to be cases. Period. It’s just going to happen,” Dr. Harvey said. “One case isn’t the end of everything. An uncontrolled outbreak is the end of everything.”
With that in mind, there are professors who will continue to operate with online instruction. Others — whether it be out of necessity or preference — will conduct in-person classes or a hybrid format. For majors such as physical therapy, hands-on instruction is essential. To accomplish that, while still heeding to safety protocols, the College has purchased enhanced PPE and purchased a large tent to allow for outdoor classes.
“We’re going to look like we’re in space suits a lot of the time,” Dr. Angela Campbell, Professor of Physical Therapy, said.
Each building’s ventilation system has been evaluated, and those that do not meet current standards have been eliminated as locations for class. The facilities management team is increasing its cleaning and disinfection practices, and has partnered with a commercial cleaning company that specializes in Electrostatic Cleaning Service (ESS).
ESS is a special type of sprayer that produces very small, electrically charged droplets. The droplets repel each other, which promotes even distribution of the cleaning agent and coverage of hidden spots that manual cleaning misses. That, along with UV lights, will be used as needed this fall.
“Facilities Management is ready to step up to help keep the campus safe,” Kevin Roy, Director of Facilities, said.
All of these cleaning enhancements and safety measures are meant to ease the reluctance to return to campus. Still, there is a certain level of concern admitting the congregation of over 2,000 people on a campus that is just under 200 acres.
“We know we cannot eliminate this, so we can do whatever we can to reduce the risk,” Higgins said.
Every student is tested when they come to campus in addition to surveillance testing throughout the semester. Faculty have the ability to opt in to this same system, but will have to pay for the test “if we technically don’t need it,” according to Zagarins — meaning that in order to get a test free of charge, there needs to be symptoms present or contact with someone who was diagnosed with COVID-19.
Zagarins, Harvey and Higgins are optimistic that students will not be sent home before Thanksgiving break. Campbell believes the success of this plan is dependent on the student’s compliance.
“I think this is going to test our motto to the fullest,” she said. “If we can keep that at the forefront and we can have students be responsible for their own actions.”
A plan that took nearly half the year to formulate is set to take shape this week. New information surfaces seemingly by the hour.
The college community’s ability to be flexible and adapt to an ever changing environment will determine how long it stays physically intact.
“The really positive news is that advances are being made all the time,” Zagarins said. “I’m hopeful in the grand scheme of things.”
Photo: Danny Priest/The Student