Download Image: Web
In the October newsletter, I reflected upon the College’s planning for the fall semester and shared my hope that the semester would conclude successfully. I am now delighted to report to our alumni and friends that Lycoming College did complete the fall semester with students in residence and attending in-person classes. We also succeeded in keeping the community healthy; when final exams concluded, only nine students and six employees had tested positive, and all had recovered. I attribute this outcome largely to the culture of compliance with COVID protocols that our students created and sustained. It was their willingness to wear face coverings, physically distance, practice good hygiene, and avoid crowds that made a difference.
Lycoming College and other Institutions of higher education (IHEs) are now engaged in planning for the spring semester, and the landscape has changed in important ways as compared to August. As a nation, we are now in a phase of the pandemic that leaves us with conflicted emotions. During December, when most IHEs were on winter break, the nation experienced a surge in virus transmission that led to the highest numbers of diagnosed infections, hospitalizations and, sadly, deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. During the same month, however, the FDA approval of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines produced a sense of optimism about the future. At present, we hear and experience two very different narratives about the pandemic — one that chronicles the grim realities of an overwhelmed healthcare system and the loss of loved ones, and another story that envisions a future when our nation has finally contained the COVID pandemic.
The situation in Williamsport and Lycoming County is also significantly different than it was when the College resumed residential education in August. At that time, Lycoming County had very low infection rates — fewer than 10 new cases per day were diagnosed, and a low positivity rate indicated an absence of community transmission. In contrast, during the month of December, the daily number of new cases averaged more than 100 persons, and the positivity rate was also very high. Finally, both nationally and locally, there is great concern about a post-holiday surge.
The leadership team at the College has recognized that the changes in the national and local context require us to pivot and adapt our plans yet again. We have not, however, abandoned the College’s mission, which is to deliver a residential liberal arts education. In fact, the successful experience of the fall semester, including student feedback, has reaffirmed our commitment to offering in-person classes. We understand that delivering this form of education is our purpose, and we know that it is overwhelmingly what our students and their families want.
Given the predictions of a post-holiday surge in cases, Lycoming and many other colleges have delayed the start of the spring semester — in our case, classes will resume January 27. As was the case in the fall, we have also eliminated a mid-semester break so as to avoid the challenge of repopulating the campus a second time. In addition, in response to student and faculty feedback, we have added some “days-off” in the middle of different weeks during the semester.
The current higher rates of virus transmission have also prompted the development of a repopulation plan different than the fall semester. During the fall, we didn’t engage in any comprehensive or surveillance testing. In making this decision, we acknowledged the ethical issues raised by using PCR tests, which were in short supply, on healthy college students as well as the limitations posed by multi-day waits for test results. We achieved a healthy beginning to the semester by executing a pre-quarantine for students from states with high infection rates, and we contained cases during the semester through a culture of compliance with public health protocols and a carefully orchestrated approach to isolating symptomatic students and quarantining their close contacts.
With escalating infection rates in many different places across the nation, however, it is not possible to execute another pre-semester quarantine. Moreover, there is now a greater likelihood that some students returning to campus could be infected but are not symptomatic, and that an early semester outbreak could occur. Unlike August, tests other than PCR tests are available and approved. In particular, we have purchased a significant supply of reasonably priced antigen tests that provide results in fifteen minutes and have received FDA emergency use authorization. Accordingly, the spring repopulation plan involves the administration of three rounds of antigen tests during the initial week that students return to campus. The antigen tests could also be utilized during the semester as part of our contingency plan to contain an outbreak later in the semester.
Another significant change from the fall semester is the likelihood that the College’s athletic teams will be engaged in intercollegiate competition. At this writing, our athletic conference — the MAC — has plans to conduct truncated schedules for winter sports; we anticipate that spring sports will play a regular schedule and that fall teams may also have some limited competitive opportunities. These possibilities have emerged because the NCAA Sports Science Institute has revised its guidelines in response to new data that suggests less risk of transmission through participation in sport than was understood to be the case in the fall. We are hopeful that this plan will be implemented because athletics is an integral component of the College’s educational experience.
It is not yet clear how vaccines will impact the College’s spring semester. While the first phase of vaccinations has moved more slowly than promised, healthcare workers and nursing home residents have been appropriately prioritized. Next steps and a reliable schedule are not yet clear, but the more optimistic scenarios suggest that the collegiate environment will benefit by the end of March when educators, including college faculty, could be vaccinated. By the fall semester, we are hopeful that widespread vaccination will allow a return to what has historically been the “normal” residential college experience.
Despite the changes that I have detailed above as well as my optimism about the future, I want to close by stressing that a successful spring semester will depend greatly upon our continued willingness to adhere to public health protocols: wearing face coverings, physical distancing, avoiding large crowds, and practicing good hygiene. I am confident that our students and faculty will be equal to this challenge.
Kent C. Trachte, Ph.D., is the 15th president of Lycoming College.