The first week of Emerson’s reopening put into practice a plan that attempts to continue in-person instruction while staving off COVID-19 outbreaks, like those popping up at universities nationwide. So far, Vice President and Dean of Campus Life Jim Hoppe said the plan has been mostly effective.
Out of 5,093 tests administered by Monday, five positive results have been reported amongst community members, including three positives in the last week. But Hoppe said some cases of the virus were all but inevitable.
As of Monday, the college’s positivity rate sat at approximately .1 percent, a much lower mark than what other universities have hit after the virus raged through their student populations. Keeping case numbers down relies almost entirely on community adherence to social distancing and mask guidelines, Hoppe said.
“It’s a cultural change, he said. “And so part of what we’ve been trying to do with the education and with the information is make sure that everyone understands what’s going to be necessary. The reality is the expectations of operating within a pandemic are an overlay to everything else that we typically do.”
The regulations represent a stark change to societal behavior that has proven difficult for some students thus far. At least a few gatherings that did not follow safety regulations have already been spotted by students or reported by residence assistants, Hoppe confirmed.
“It’s pretty anxiety-inducing…especially when I do catch seven kids in one room or have to tell people to put on their masks,” Kiran Mahboob, a senior Business of Creative Enterprises major and RA in Little Building, said. “But everyone saw what it was like to get sent home, and I’m hoping no one wants to repeat that. I also do really appreciate how quickly the college is suspending people or putting people on probation.”
Hoppe said punishments for students violating guidelines vary on a case-by-case basis, and that suspension or removal from on-campus housing would be considered in extreme or repetitive cases.
The most poignant threat to the reopening plan, Hoppe said, would be students gathering in large numbers at bars or off-campus parties that could lead to case clusters.
The college’s testing program, which includes regular weekly tests for students, has been a bright spot in the reopening. Wait times have remained low, Hoppe confirmed, with students waiting an average of 24-48 hours to receive results. Some have even reported receiving results in as little as 10 hours.
Hoppe said Tufts Medical Center and The Broad Institute, who is processing the tests, were equipped to handle the increase of testing capacity that came with the influx of students this last week.
“In addition to the tests from Emerson, I think The Broad [Institute] did 42,000 tests on Friday from campuses around the state New England,” he said.” So we’re into that mix as well. But the staff at Tufts have been very helpful and seem to have gotten themselves into a pretty good rhythm.”
Information about positive cases has come via the college’s COVID-19 dashboard, which administrators have said will now be updated twice weekly, or when information is particularly pressing. Data was initially set to be released weekly, but after hearing community input the college decided that it will provide updates on both Monday and Thursday.
Assistant Vice President for Campus Life Erik Murisepp, who has been integral in the college’s COVID-19 planning, did not comment on why Emerson has opted for biweekly updates. Other local schools like Northeastern, Boston University, and Suffolk are releasing updates daily.
The data does not specify if the five positive tests were produced by students, faculty, or staff, or how many of the 5,093 tests have been administered to each subset of the community.
Murisepp said the data in the dashboard is vague to protect individuals’ identities.
The U.S. Department of Education has indicated in new guidance related to COVID-19 that data should be published by colleges and universities as long as it does not allow for students to be identified through the data. Legal experts have said that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act does not give schools a legal right to withhold COVID-19 data, so Emerson’s choice to do so is administrators’ prerogative.
One of the key principles of the plan, Hoppe said, has been an emphasis on fluidity, meaning administrators are willing to make changes to adapt to different circumstances.
“We always have to make some adjustments as we go along, just because that’s what always happens with the start of the semester,” Hoppe said. “There’s probably going to be some adjustments as we learn people’s patterns and timing.”