Drexel’s Plan for a safe fall return
Dr. Marla Gold outlines how Drexel can ensure low transmission rates on campus from what they have learned during the last two quarters of classes.
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Like most college campuses across the country, Drexel University is preparing for a fully in-person Fall season.
Their Welcome Week or new undergraduate orientation starts on Sept. 13 and classes begin a week after. This means that thousands of students will be coming back to the area in the coming weeks.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are cases of sophomores who will be stepping on campus for the first time as students. Not only are there undergraduates eager to return to campus life, but some are excited just to begin their true college journey.
The institution runs on a quarter system instead of a semester one, and it’s why Drexel’s Fall term starts about two weeks later than other schools in the area. They typically last 10 weeks and final term examinations are scheduled to end on Dec. 11.
The law school and medical school have already started their semesters for the 2021-2022 academic year.
Drexel’s cooperative education program, or Co-op, sees many students obtain six months of work experience while they are studying. The four-year program gives students one of these opportunities, while the five year program allows for three.
Some have their Co-op during the fall and winter quarters while others do so in the Spring and Summer. This means that the university has a larger student presence on campus during the Summers than its neighbors.
This has also given health experts at Drexel an extra term to analyze and to coordinate a proper return to campus in a month.
Marla J. Gold, MD, is the director of the Return Oversight Committee at Drexel, and she spoke with AL DÍA News about how they can use what they learned from their experience with in-person classes during the Spring and Summer to ensure a safe upcoming term.
Masks were not required in classrooms for most of the Summer term until her committee became increasingly concerned about the Delta variant.
On Aug. 3, the Return Oversight Committee released an updated guidance stating that masking had been expanded to all instructional and research settings for students and employees.
“This change also adds masks in places where there is public facing. Say the admissions office where there might be plenty of people from the public that are Drexel students or employees, we want masking to occur there,” Gold said.
She said the change was made in agreement with a CDC recommendation released on July 27 that suggested even fully vaccinated people wear masks in public indoor settings of substantial or high transmission because of the Delta variant.
Optional masking in classrooms during most of the Summer was possible because of Drexel setting up vaccine facilities in the Spring once college-age students became eligible to receive doses.
“In June unvaccinated students were tested every week, for their own safety, and vaccinated students and employees were allowed to make their own masking decision. In June we experienced no cases,” Gold said.
Between Aug. 2 and 8, Drexel experienced a total of 11 positive cases and cumulative data from Oct. 12, 2020 shows that the community has held a positivity rate of 1.16% in the last 10 months.
Vaccinated individuals showing mild symptoms of the virus, also known as breakthrough cases, added to the reasons why the Return Oversight Committee chose to require masks again.
This guidance was issued not because of cases being detected on campus, but due to rising case numbers in the region. The move proved not to be an overreaction since a little over a week later, the City of Philadelphia recognized the high transmission of Delta in the area.
Mayor Jim Kenney and Acting Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole informed local residents this week that a new mask mandate would go into effect on Thursday, Aug. 12.
People have to wear face coverings indoors again and business owners are allowed to require proof of vaccination for entry.
When the original mask mandate was lifted on June 11 the city was averaging 52 new cases per day, but on Aug. 10 that figure more than quadrupled to 229 new cases per day.
This is a concern for students who may be on a Co-op in different parts of the city while taking a class at Drexel. All of the travel will surely make the young effective transmitters of the virus, whether they are vaccinated or not.
Drexel is also requiring its community to be vaccinated, although students can apply for medical or religious exemption.
Gold aims for a heavily vaccinated campus community, but recognizes that many students are still in the vaccination process or want to start, but may have not been able to because they did not have access to an acceptable vaccine.
This is especially true for international students returning to campus, who will be the only group of returning students that will need to quarantine upon arrival. In accordance with CDC guidelines, they are tested before flying and once in the U.S.
Unvaccinated students arriving from anywhere will be tested as soon as they get to Drexel.
Students who have not completed the vaccination process — meaning two weeks after receiving all of their doses — by the time they are on campus, will have weekly routine testing. The rule also applies to students and employees granted exemption status.
International students will also need to have been immunized with a vaccine that has been approved by the World Health Organization if they plan on being in-person in the Fall.
For example, if someone received the Russian Sputnik V vaccine overseas, they will need to receive an acceptable vaccine in a designated amount of time afterwards.
There is an anticipation that the university will experience little to no scenarios of non-exempted vaccine hesitancy from returning students. These students would not be allowed to stay at the university.
“We’re trying to be sensible and strike a balance between safety and comfort. I am all about understanding individual freedom but this is a global pandemic and one person’s need for individual freedom can really impact and infect others so we have to move as a community,” Gold said.
Drexel also shares the University City area in Philadelphia with the University of Pennsylvania and the University of the Sciences.
They are also a train ride away from Temple in North Philadelphia and Jefferson, which is in Center City.
Outside of potentially sharing classes or research facilities, young people want their normal social lives and partying between the colleges is inevitable.
Gold says that the higher education institutions in the area are prepared for this because all their health experts have met consistently throughout the pandemic.
“The Philadelphia Health Department convened a meeting of campus leaders from every college and university in the City of Philadelphia together on Zoom weekly. We went over guidance, compared issues, shared success stories etc,” she said.
Gold shared that they have had additional meetings with Penn and Temple because the three have very large campus populations. Further dialogue also reassures students so they do not perceive one institution to be more precautious than another.
They have also opened their vaccination clinics to residents in the surrounding neighborhoods like Mantua and Powelton Village. Students and those who live near the university can receive doses at the Student Health Center, or the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships.
If Delta continues to spiral out of control in the area, Drexel is equipped to return to online or hybrid learning, but they hope this never has to happen again.
“It is our full intention to open up fully in-person in the Fall… We are excited because as much as students miss being together, we miss being with them. We remain optimistic about moving forward,” Gold said.