Delaware college students face new kind of test upon return

A Delaware State University student completes a COVID-19 test on campus. The university is partnering with Testing for America, a nonprofit, to hold testing on campus for students, faculty and staff. (Submitted photo)

Returning to in-person classes was “strange,” for Wesley College English professor Susan Redington Bobby.

“It’s weird to get used to some of the barriers, having to remember things like keeping the mask on, or going into a classroom and the first thing you do is you clean your workspace,” she said Tuesday, after she had led both her first remote and in-person classes of the semester. “I think a lot of it, we’ll get used to it in time but I would say it’s just weird or strange to come back under those kinds of circumstances.”

“Strange” was also how philosophy, religion and American studies professor Jeffrey Mask termed it.

“It’s definitely not a normal beginning to a fall semester,” he said Monday, the first day of classes for the small college in Dover.

This week kicked off the start of the fall semester across the state, with classes getting underway at Wesley and Delaware State University, and students beginning the move-in process in Newark at the University of Delaware.

While students will be on campus at all three institutions, Wesley’s students returned to in-person classes (in addition to hybrid and entirely remote options), while both DSU and UD are mostly virtual, with the exception of some courses (nursing, labs, etc) and in-person opportunities.

With campuses open, testing regiments, social distancing and masks are all part of the new college experience.

“I will say testing is necessary, we think, to reopen, but not sufficient,” said Neil Hockstein of Testing for America, a nonprofit that advises higher education institutions on reopening amid COVID-19. “In other words, there are a lot of other things you need to do to keep your campus safe. And that’s wearing masks, and social distancing and making sure your campus density is not too high.”

Though testing isn’t the only piece of the puzzle, it’s a big part of it. And one that looks different on each campus that plans to have students on it.

Testing for America — which formed in April by volunteers consisting of doctors, scientists and entrepreneurs — partnered with Delaware State University in the summer to prepare for the semester ahead. The organization advised the university how to find a testing vendor, how to develop the IT infrastructure, how to set up test sites and on what the best practices for epidemiology plans are. It also “assisted with philanthropic support so they didn’t have to carry that heavy burden for test costs.”

Wesley College, which is beginning a yearlong process of taking up DSU’s mantle, hopes to be a part of that partnership, but that’s not the case yet.

While Wesley President Bob Clark said that the hope is to have “those [TFA] test kits on campus in the very, very near future,” Dr. Hockstein said that the organization’s first goal is to “ensure success at Delaware State.”

“Both ‘success’ in terms of our ability to assist them and advise them but also support them financially,” he added. “So we hope we’ll be able to raise more money to assist Wesley. At this point, we haven’t provided any philanthropic support to Wesley, but we hope to do so.”

That leaves Wesley in a gray area for testing its population of students on its campus.

“There’s a whole host of sites around this area where you can get testing with very little wait,” President Clark said. “[TFA has] been fantastic. But again, instead of just relying solely on them, we’ve relied on our community assets.”

Students have been urged to seek testing at the sites off campus. For students without cars, there are transportation opportunities.

“Before coming back to campus and once they got back to campus, we’ve told folks ‘Please go get tested. There’s a lot of places you can get tested for free,’” President Clark said. “For those that got tested before they came back, fantastic, we still want you to get tested at least once a week with all the free testing around here.”

Prior to arrival to campus, DSU shipped out kits to its students over the summer so they could be tested before arrival, a spokesman said. Students were tested again on arrival.

Faculty were not required to receive testing before returning, but were tested on campus upon their arrival, or the week before, he said.

TFA advised DSU to complete twice-weekly testing for each of their students, faculty and staff.

Upstate at the University of Delaware, a negative pre-arrival test was required for students to move-in, a spokeswoman at the university said. They were to upload their test results for Student Health Services’ for review prior to arrival. (Faculty and staff were required to do the same, to be reviewed by human resources).

The university — which is having a population of students live on campus, but moved most of its classes online for the fall — plans to conduct university-run regular COVID-19 testing throughout the semester, with results available the following day. Testing frequency “will depend on your possible exposure to others, your health condition and your risk factors. Also, random testing of individuals may occur to better monitor the possible transmission of COVID-19 on campus,” according to the university’s website.

Frequent testing, coupled with mask wearing and distancing, is the most prudent way to reopen, Dr. Hockstein said.

“We’ve seen across the country schools that have tried to reopen without some of the masking and social distancing and social responsibility and with less frequent testing and we’ve seen the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill close within a week, Notre Dame had a high positivity rate and went all online,” Dr. Hockstein said.

“We’ve seen other schools have moved to twice weekly testing and it seems as if that’s the best practice, that random sampling of the population is not something that at least, at present, seems to be prudent based on the mathematical modeling the epidemiologists have done.”

At Wesley, Mary Jensen, a professor of psychology, was looking forward to seeing her students before her first class Monday.

“This is a small campus with small classes. We know all of our students fairly well, and so I’m looking forward to seeing them,” she said.

Holding in-person classes involves mask wearing, distancing and cleaning one’s area. Students aren’t to be admitted without a mask, Dr. Bobby said, and disposable masks are provided in different areas around campus.

For the most part, Dr. Bobby said she has seen people on campus complying with the protocols.

“Today was the first day I came onto campus to teach and I don’t find coming onto campus to be nerve-wracking but there are definitely places I’ve gone to, out in the public,” she said. “At Wesley, it’s just a complete culture of compliance where everyone’s working together, so I don’t feel nervous there.”

Still, college students are in the demographic (ages 18 to 34) of coronavirus cases that lead the rest of the age groups in the state.

“I think my biggest concern with coming back to campus though has been that you can’t expect college-age students to take a health risk seriously,” Dr. Mask said.

“I’ve already witnessed, driving down Governors Avenue, a party in an off-campus house with lots of students who were not social distancing, not wearing masks, they were acting like college students. I’m really concerned that, in a matter of weeks, we will be going online again, as we did last March.”

Dr. Jensen said she was “skeptical” that students would follow the rules well.

“I think for the most part [the college is] trying their best to set up a procedure so we can have face-to-face and hopefully people will socially distance but college-aged kids are the ones that are least likely to follow these kinds of guidelines,” she said.

Dr. Bobby described the students as “considerate,” “kind” and “some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”

“They know us and we know them pretty well. I think that if I walk into a class and I say, ‘Look I’m somebody who is at high risk for contracting COVID, you’ve got to do this for me,’ they’re going to listen. They’re not going to unnecessarily put people at risk,” she said.

“Now I don’t know how they’re going to be when they’re out from under our eyes,” she added. “We all worry about that, I suppose. Are they going to be wildly different on the weekend when the faculty and the staff have gone home? I suppose that’s possible but I think that they know how serious this is.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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