Campus Braces For Omicron Variant Surge

As cases of COVID-19 in Delaware county reach extreme highs, students travel back to campus to begin yet another atypical spring semester. President Valerie Smith announced in her Jan. 7 email that the college anticipates high COVID-19 positivity rates — unlike any the college has experienced in the past pandemic semesters — and that to mitigate potential transmission, the COVID-19 Planning Committee decided to shift the first two weeks of the semester to remote learning. 

When asked by The Phoenix what metrics or indicators motivated this decision, Vice President for Communications Andy Hirsch responded on behalf of the administration by echoing President Smith’s Jan. 7 email, stating that there really is no one answer to that question.

“The College’s COVID-19 Planning Group makes decisions based on numerous factors and informed by multiple sources of information, including the latest science and data available to us; regular conversations with campus community members, public health and medical experts, and our colleagues at peer institutions; and an ongoing assessment of the circumstances in the region and on campus,” Hirsch said.

The college officially began the semester as previously scheduled on Tuesday, Jan 18; however, the first week is an asynchronous week of learning followed by a week of synchronous remote instruction. Hirsch explained that this approach was designed to give students and families flexibility in choosing when to return to campus while minimizing considerable disruption to the academic calendar. 

“Our plans also allow us to increase the on-campus population more slowly, which, in and of itself, is a strategy to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19,” Hirsch said. “We wanted to take all reasonable measures to avoid altering the academic calendar by, for example, reducing breaks or extending the semester, which would’ve been incredibly disruptive for the campus community.”

Following President Smith’s Jan. 7 announcement, Associate Dean and Director of Student Engagement Rachel Head sent out a Sign-up Genius sheet that students were required to fill out with their expected move-in date before noon EST on Wednesday, Jan. 12. Many students indicated that they planned to return to campus the weekend before the semester began on Jan. 18. 

The shift to virtual elicited a mixed response among the student body, including Ryan Jin ’24.

“Initially, I was a bit bummed out about starting virtual and moving campus events to Zoom again, since it brought back vivid memories of Fall 2020 where Zoom dictated a large chunk of my screen time,” Jin said. “However, I don’t think I was surprised, in fact, I was mostly in support of all of the new plans and policies. Other institutions of higher education had already announced that the first two weeks of the Spring 2022 semester would be virtual during December, and seeing as Omicron is absolutely decimating through the U.S. population, I can fully understand taking the extra precautions that they did.”

Carlotta Piantanida ’24 similarly approved of the college’s policies to limit contact, feeling that the two-week move to online classes will help ease the college into the school year. She described herself, however, as confused about the testing policy and what parts of campus would remain open.

Members of the administrative staff clarified details surrounding this policy change during the student community Town Hall on Wednesday, Jan. 12, a Zoom seminar hosted by Chief of Staff and Secretary of the College Erin Brownlee Dell. Students particularly asked questions about the change in testing protocol and the extent to which campus life would be restricted during the first two weeks.

Instead of taking tests at the Bond Hall every two weeks, students are now required to self-administer rapid tests twice a week. Casey Anderson said this change was driven by the benefits of immediate results and flexibility. Students must test upon the day of their arrival and every following Monday and Thursday at their convenience. If they observe a positive test result, they should immediately contact the Student Health Center by emailing health@swarthmore.edu through Jan. 18 or by calling 610-328-8058 during their open hours Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST after Jan. 18. 

Weiyi Zhu ’23 agrees with the new testing protocol, particularly the higher testing frequency. 

“I think that the school’s testing protocols last semester did not make much sense. By having students test every two weeks, that allows them a lot of time to unknowingly catch and spread the virus. Other colleges such as Williams have done the two-tests-a-week format since last semester, and it makes a lot of sense. I am happy that Swarthmore is doing the same now,” Zhu said. 

According to a residential housing email sent by Star Longoria, housing staff distributed a stack of QuickVue at-home COVID-19 test kits to every student’s dorm room on Friday, Jan. 14. If students cannot find their testing kits on either their bed or desk, they should email housing immediately. In her Jan. 7 email to the student body, Anderson said that students should expect to receive an email later this month with instructions on where to collect test kits following the week of Jan. 31.  

When students raised concerns about testing accountability during the Q&A portion of the Town Hall, Terhune stressed that the college community must look after one another to ensure a successful semester during the spread of this dangerous virus. He continued that the administration has had next to no difficulty up to this point getting students to adhere to testing protocol and does not anticipate any in this semester. 

Piantanida, however, said she was still confused as to why the college is not requiring students to report all of their home test kit results. She recalled a time last semester when she forgot to get tested even when it was mandatory to sign up for a testing appointment and the provided testing reminders. She worries that a similar mistake might have more severe consequences this semester.

“If I just lose my at-home tests or if I completely forgot [to take an at-home test], the college automatically assumes that I’m negative when I could easily be positive,” Piantanida said. 

Anderson said that the Worth Center plans to report positive test results on the college’s website as Health Center did in recent semesters. This page, however, has yet to be updated for the Spring semester, despite many students imminently arriving and several international students and athletes already residing on campus. 

Though the college has not gone as far as restricting travel outside the college’s county like other institutions, the administration is asking students, faculty, and staff members to exercise good judgment amidst the current Omicron surge and has instituted extra precautions during the first two weeks of the semester. 

In effect until Jan. 31, all dining establishments on campus will only offer grab-and-go options while operating at normal hours and not requiring reservations, according to Assistant Vice President for Auxiliary Services Anthony Coschignano. Terhune added that students may gather in resident halls in groups of no larger than ten people and are encouraged to eat at a distance. Individual room occupancy may not exceed 200%, e.g., a single may not be occupied by more than two people, and a double may not be occupied by more than four people.

Zhu shared his doubts that students will follow the rules Terhune mentioned. 

“I think it is hard to enforce the rule that students not gather in large groups indoors. And I think that they absolutely will eat together at close proximity. This has happened before in past semesters.” Zhu said. “However, I think that there is nothing more the college can do. Their rules this semester make sense and are reasonable.”

Differing from recent past semesters, the administration did not require students to sign the Garnet Pledge, an honor code agreement to follow all COVID-19 safety measures, before they arrived on campus. 

Additionally, Coschignano said that three-layered masks that are more protective against the Omicron variant would be available at all building entry points. While KN95 or N95 masks are recommended as the safest masks, they are not mandated by the administration, leaving masking choices up to individuals. Head sent an email on Jan. 16 reminding students to wear their masks when in the hallways, bathrooms, kitchens, lounges, and when entering or exiting the building.

The administration hopes these precautionary measures laid out in the Jan. 7 email will set the college up for a safe and rewarding Spring 2022 semester. 

“We expect that the measures we’re taking now amid this surge in cases will be short-term and that we can begin to ease them once we return to in-person classes on Jan. 31,” Hirsch wrote. “That said, we’ll continue to adjust based on the course of the pandemic and make the decisions we feel are necessary to help keep our community safe while also allowing us to continue providing students with an exemplary residential learning experience.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading