Faculty and Professional Staff COVID-19 Questions, Answered

A screenshot of participants in the Feb. 25 event.
A screenshot of participants in the Feb. 25 event.

Please visit the ‘Drexel’s Response to Coronavirus’ website for the latest public health advisories.

On Feb. 25, Drexel University held the first of three virtual Q&A community conversations for faculty and professional staff with questions answered by the University leaders guiding Drexel’s COVID-19 response.

During the hourlong session, members of the University’s Return Oversight Committee discussed the most accurate and up-to-date information related to the University’s operations during the pandemic. Topics included working from home, complimentary COVID-19 testing, vaccine access, safety requirements for the Drexel community, on-campus operations, and occupational safety.

Some of the panelists’ thoughts and responses have been excerpted in a lightly edited transcript below. For additional information, please refer to the Faculty and Staff Q&As page on the ‘Drexel’s Response to Coronavirus’ website, and email roc@drexel.edu with additional questions and concerns.

Human Resources

On changes to the phased return to campus for faculty and professional staff, and Phase 5 return to work:

Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer Megan Weyler: Until now, we have only provided return to campus notifications on a term-by-term basis. We understand this can be challenging for those juggling personal and professional obligations and the current remote situation has a very large impact.  

All who are currently remote received a letter with an anticipated spring return. Unfortunately, fully reopening campus for spring is not an option. Each of the division heads are finalizing plans that will expand the return-to-work phases to include phase 5 for the current spring term, phase 6 for summer and phase 7 for fall, with the hopes of a fuller reopening for fall term. The final plans are due on March 5 and individual communications will follow in the week thereafter.

On what an individual can do if they’re not comfortable with their new phase:

Megan Weyler: First, always talk to your supervisor. We have stressed, especially in this last round, to make sure that when plans are being developed, division heads and supervisors are fully informed to have conversations about what’s anticipated or expected for their area. If there is a concern or if you need flexibility, first go to your supervisor. If there are any other issues or concerns, you can reach out to your business partner to assist in that process.

On flexible work arrangements and continued remote work post-pandemic:

Megan Weyler: Drexel does have a flexible work arrangement policy that outlines quite a few options. 

I’m sure you’ve received many communications describing what flexible work may look like in a post-pandemic world. Many of the questions received for today’s Q&A were focused on this area. We have just reviewed with the President's cabinet a presentation that focused on both the benefits as well as the challenges we expect as we look to expand flexible work arrangements, as well as extend more permanent work opportunities as the campus returns. 

The President’s cabinet has approved a pilot program to evaluate the expansion. We are working now to put together a pilot that will help us in determining how we move forward with the expansion of flexible work. 

We will be communicating to the community very soon. We’re hoping to have the pilot program put together in about two weeks and then additional information will follow after.

On half-day summer Fridays:

Megan Weyler: We’ve been able to do half-day Fridays through the summer over the past few years. We are anticipating still being able to continue that this summer. It has been a top question as to how we can provide some relief even now before summer begins.

On the possibility of resuming the University’s matched contribution to retirement accounts:

Megan Weyler: I know retirement contributions are a priority to be reinstated. Executive Vice President and Nina Henderson Provost Paul Jensen and Executive Vice President, Treasurer and Chief Operating Officer Helen Bowman have been discussion this is in the budget and town halls with many across the University. While we may not be able to reinstate the full contribution next year, I can assure you it definitely is a priority.

Executive Vice President and Nina Henderson Provost Paul E. Jensen: I think what’s important to note is that we had these temporary adjustments or savings that were realized by not doing merit last year, by not doing the matching, and those were put back into the budget for this year. Now, it is true that we still need to resolve an existing deficit. I just wanted to point out that the intent or the desire was to reinstate both of those things. What remains to be seen is, can we do that and to what degree?

On the possibility of resuming merit increases and increased standard-of-living costs:

Megan Weyler: We still have to go through the fiscal year 2022 budget process to determine what we can move forward with.

On using public transit to come back to campus [based off of Drexel’s COVID-19 research partnership with SEPTA] and campus parking fees:

Marla Gold: We hear updates on ongoing research looking at SEPTA and safety of the cars and trains. So far that’s turning out to be much safer than most expected. SEPTA is dealing with some issues on their platforms and starting to boot back up and get ready, because a lot of people are returning to their offices in the late spring and summer and fall.

Megan Weyler: As many who have been on campus through this time know, parking has been free. Unfortunately, Don Liberati [assistant vice president of business services] is not with us today; he oversees this area. I know that they are working on what the plan will look like for spring and moving forward. There is availability for parking on campus at time, but my understanding is additional communications should be out next week.

COVID-19 Vaccinations, Testing and Protocols

On vaccine distribution and requirements at Drexel:

Vice Provost for Community Health Care Innovation and Director of the Return Oversight Committee Marla Gold, MD: Remember that Philadelphia County has rules for vaccination that differ slightly but in important ways from the rest of Pennsylvania. At Drexel we defer to the local health department and Philadelphia guidelines when we talk about vaccines because we're a Philadelphia-based business. 

If you live outside of Philadelphia, different rules may apply to you. Institutions of higher education in Philadelphia fall in phase 1C. That’s new and it’s been spelled out to us as of Jan. 26. Currently we’re in 1B in Philadelphia — people over the age of 75 or people over the age of 65 who meet criteria by having certain health conditions. We expect the city to get to 1C before the summer.

Everyone in 1C who works in an institution of higher education and who wants to be vaccinated should be able to be vaccinated no later than the middle of summer. Now, notice, I say "should be." If there’s an interruption of supply chain or some unforeseen issue, that will not happen. But otherwise, we are working closely with the health department to advocate on behalf of the University. We have told the health department that when 1C comes up, we would be happy to work alongside them and to vaccinate our population of more than 5,000 employees, minus the people who are eligible to be vaccinated in other county. I’m feeling more and more confident by the day that that IC will come up before the summer, but we don’t have a date yet.

We had one clinic to date that we ran for people at Drexel who qualified under phase 1A. This was mostly for our health care students and a few people in clinical settings or who work in labs who work directly with the virus that causes COVID-19 disease. So the city came in with vaccine and helped us to vaccinate people who qualified under 1A; we set up a way to do that in Behrakis Hall.

Now, the city likes our set up so they’ve asked if they could use it to bring in eligible Philadelphians whom they schedule. That’s not “our” people, but we’re there to help the city distribute vaccine and collaborate, while at the same time, of course, advocating for our own employees.

On recommendations for people able to secure a vaccine prior to Drexel being able to provide it for them:

Marla Gold: Our recommendation strongly is that if you have the opportunity to secure a vaccine for yourself prior to 1C in Philadelphia or before Drexel has it, as an institution, you should do it. We will have a way to ask who’s been vaccinated and who not or who wants it when that time comes. We don’t want you to wait, though. If you have a slot open because of your health care or because of where you live, then you absolutely should seek to get vaccinated and not wait for us.

On whether vaccines are mandatory at Drexel:

Marla Gold: Vaccines are not mandatory and there are no current plans to make them mandatory any time soon. You need not be vaccinated to return to campus. We’re not able to say whether it will or won’t be mandatory in the fall. It appears right now that it will not be. Why not? Number one, the vaccine is authorized under emergency use or EUA; that means it has not been fully FDA approved.

I will be the first to tell you it’s a safe vaccine and there’s hundreds of thousands of pieces of data coming in, with more coming, all pointing to the safety of these new vaccines. But first we want to see it fully FDA approved. And second, we want to see what the state does; that is, will the state make a mandate? That will help all institutions of higher ed if we see that it’s a mandate coming from the health authority. And then lastly, mandating vaccination doesn’t necessarily mean that that will help uptake.

Vaccine awareness campaigns will be rolling out from the city of Philadelphia, as well as from inside the University. We need to have vaccine awareness for everyone — all our employees, our community and our students — because they’ll be eligible for vaccine probably by the summer, depending on where they live and certainly by the fall.

Face coverings and distance remain the mainstays of safety, along with strong ventilation and air conditioning systems. These are very important. Also screening and testing for asymptomatic key populations in congregate settings. We’ve been able to do extremely well with that this quarter. To date, there is no evidence of any transmission of infection in an academic setting or an administrative setting from student to employee. Students are doing overall well, all things considered in the pandemic. And many of us have been coming back and operating safely with these things in place.

On the state of COVID-19 testing at Drexel:

Marla Gold: For testing, we followed most of what we could adapt and adopt from the Scientific Advisory Group. They looked at things like how accurate or sensitive and specific is the test that we’re using? What percent of our population is mask-wearing? How effective are the masks, especially two masks, that people are wearing?

A lot goes into figuring out how often to test. That led us to mandatory weekly testing for students, students who are in face-to-face classes, graduate and undergraduate students who live in our residential facilities or other congregate campus housing. All of our athletes are tested at a minimum of weekly. Those in competitive play have been getting tested daily. We even have a competitive wrestling team also tested daily (by the way, Drexel leads in wrestling and this may be our year). Giving young people — for their mental health and their physical abilities and academics — these points of engagement has been very important for them. 

We’re currently conducting close to 3,000 to 4,000 tests a week for our students. Faculty and staff and employees are welcome to be tested every other week. This remains a nasal PCR and most students do it themselves at this point. You do get used to doing it for a test for yourself. The lab is right here at the New College Building where we’ve run those tests for our asymptomatic population.

On how long Drexel will continue to provide complimentary COVID-19 testing:

Marla Gold: We’ll continue to offer it as long as it’s needed. We don’t see any end to that well into spring, during the summer and into the fall at this time. The only reason I’m not saying beyond that is we’re not sure how much of it we’ll need, so we’ll be measuring that as we go. It will relate to basically federal, state and local guidelines and availability of vaccines.

On checking possible COVID-19 variants on campus:

Marla Gold: I want to say that we have sequenced our positives and we have not seen any variants on campus. That doesn’t mean that they’re not in Philadelphia, because we know there were several cases of B.1.1.7 right near our campus. That is why we made recommendations about double masking, backed by guidance from the CDC.

I think what’s important for everyone to know is we are sequencing and constantly looking at data. You can see our data is posted every Sunday night or Monday morning on the dashboard off the COVID site. The students and certainly our employees are doing incredibly well at a time when they crave being together.

On Drexel providing masks on campus:

Marla Gold: Each employee and student should have gotten or can get the one cloth mask that we have along with some hand sanitizer [given to Dragons once they return to campus]. If you forget your mask, we have extra surgical-grade masks around campus in strategic locations. We’re taking a look at providing more of the cloth masks in the future.

On the Drexel Health Checker app, its information on travel, and who is required to use it:

Vice President of the Drexel Solutions Institute Anna Koulas: We ask that everybody use the app two hours prior to arrival onto campus. For students living on campus, we ask that they use that daily to help track symptoms.

Marla Gold: Questions about high-risk travel are a little outdated on the app, and we’ll be revising that. We’re constantly updating the app, and we’d like to try and have as many important pieces together before we go to the next version.

As far as travel, we are still following the recommendations from the state. Those recommendations are that if you travel outside the area — so you’re not commuting from Delaware or New Jersey on a daily basis, but you actually travel to, for example, California or Florida — you are required to get a negative test within 72 hours before reentering Pennsylvania. Those are the state rules and that’s what you should be doing.

The Health Checker app really has two main functions. One is that we know that people are without symptoms, haven’t had COVID and haven’t recently been exposed before they come to campus. The other, though, is that we do want to hear from you because you’re entering your symptoms and there’s an algorithm built in there. We have picked up, more so among students, early infection. I can tell you right now that Drexel's Director of Student Health Services Janet Cruz, MD, and Student Health really are on the other end.

You may not be here, but we actually still very much care about you. We may need to help you with testing. We may need to help you with care providers or other information. We prefer that you let us know how you are. That said, if you’re not coming in at all and you’re feeling well, you do not need to go in there and check in.

On wearing masks on campus, such as in offices and cubicles:

Marla Gold: If you’re alone in your office with the door closed, you do not need to wear a mask. Should somebody open your door and walk into your space, you would need to put that mask on. You may want to put a sign outside. What’s important is that when a person is near another person or your doors are open, then put on mask.

Assistant Vice President of Environmental Health & Radiation Safety Jon Chase: If you’re in a shared space or cubicle and you want to eat, you have to be able to safely remove your mask. This has to do with distancing, layout and ventilation. When people are working in cubicles, we’re asking admin units to come to us to look at those cubicle farms or cubicle layouts so we can make some assessments and recommendations on occupancy in those spaces. If the walls of those cubicles go up over six feet, there’s also more flexibility as opposed to having low-level cubicle walls. So it really depends.

For the designated eating areas around campus, we’ve looked at those spaces and laid them out in the safest possible manner to give maximum distance between individuals and ensure that the ventilation in those areas is strong enough to be able to keep people as safe as practical. That’s why we’ve picked those areas. If you’re going to be eating, you really want to be alone. I know that stinks. But you’re going to have your mask off. There’s a lot of transmission that occurs through small get-togethers...when people are eating and having breaks together and drinking coffee and eating food. We’ve designated spaces where people are separated and they should be single occupancy.

Anna Koulas: Just a reminder to everyone, we have tents set up outside and we do highly recommend people use those tents as the weather is turning. Currently, there is no tent in Center City. There are three locations currently on the University City Campus: one at Race Lawn, one at the fitness plaza by the Rec Center and one at Lot D.

On what services the University can provide for service workers not directly employed by the University, as well as community members, related to testing and vaccine:

Marla Gold: There are a number of contractors in security and food service that are able to do testing with us, and some of them have taken advantage of that. As much as we can, we make these offers. It involves working with unions and different working situations. Drexel wants to be able to take care of as many people as possible and offer those services. So please know that I work closely with Megan Wyler and others in making these services available.

And for vaccine, from the beginning, we have also in tandem written to the city and worked with the city and met with the city — reminding the city about Drexel’s history of civic engagement particularly in our own backyard with Powelton Village residents and Mantua and our willingness, because we’ve run clinics with the city for others, to go door to door, be out there, help out. The city knows this and we’re just waiting for the green light. As mentioned, we are making our space available at Behrakis Hall to the city for vaccinations for the eligible public. We provide the space and our volunteers are helping out. We do that for the city right now at no extra cost as a public good. So we’re doing everything we can from an advocacy and service perspective for our neighbors, for Philadelphians and for our workers, as best we can.

Looking Toward Future Terms and Commencement

On planning courses for the spring term:

Paul Jensen: Deans are saying that in some high-flex sections students aren’t necessarily coming in large numbers. At the same time, some students aren’t coming to campus because we don’t have a large number of face-to-face sections. I think each college is going to have to manage the spring in terms of what they’re seeing in enrollment. 

We’ve built out a plan to maintain the same level of face-to-face and hybrid for the spring. Registration is happening now. If we see significant changes in terms of students signing up for face-to-face and online, then the schools and colleges will have to adjust and it’ll be the schools and colleges who are working with faculty and professional staff in terms of who needs to be there on a day-to-day basis.

On whether protocols have changed for face-to-face classes for the spring:

Paul Jensen: Protocols have not changed. So faculty and staff should be doing the online COVID training. We’re asking everybody to use the Health Checker. And in the classroom, obviously, we’re still calling for social distancing and masking.

On planning for the summer term:

Paul Jensen: We are working with the registrar and with the deans right now in terms of building out plans for summer courses. We are expecting to have a significant increase in undergraduate face-to-face course offerings for summer. In spring and summer, we also have to manage some of the COVID-related challenges with co-op. Obviously, COVID has reduced the number of co-op positions in general that are available. We are anticipating that with spring and summer, more students who are supposed to be on co-op will be coming back to class. We’re expecting the summer to be relatively more active in terms of students being back and taking classes, so students will have the ability to live on campus. So we’re anticipating an active summer and we’re looking at increasing the amount of face-to-face and hybrid that’s available.

On planning for fall term:

Paul Jensen: This is the big question that no one has a complete answer to. I think the answer depends on when social distancing restrictions will be lifted. In terms of thinking about getting back to "regular" classes...obviously we can’t do what we’ve historically done without those measures being lifted. I think there’s reason to believe that in fall, and hopefully no later than winter, social distancing rules will change and that will have a big impact on how campus functions. That is something that we’re hoping to learn more about in the coming weeks as we continue to build the plan for the fall. At this point we need everyone to be prepared to be back, because it may be that we need everybody back.

Marla Gold: This has to do with occupancy standards, and the issue before us is whether or not vaccinated individuals are still able to be asymptomatic and unwittingly and unknowingly transmit virus. That data should be coming in soon, certainly before the fall, and depending on the data, the health department will make changes. For now, we plan as if occupancy standards are more or less close to the same — meaning the distance and the masking.

On Commencement 2021:

Paul Jensen: Right now, there’s a tentative plan for commencement that calls for schools and colleges to again have virtual commencements. But we are this year planning, tentatively, as of now, a University-wide commencement at the ballpark, as we have done for the last several years. That [June] date is being confirmed. That’s why it’s not currently on the calendar.

On-Campus Facilities and Activities

On determining occupancy and cleaning and testing the air quality in buildings on campus:

Jon Chase: My office is largely involved in that process: myself personally, as well as Martin Bell, who’s a certified industrial hygienist; Nick Haas, who is a professional engineer; and our in-house architects and space management folks. Chuck Haas [PhD, LD Betz Professor of Environmental Engineering and Environmental Engineering Program head] from the College of Engineering is reviewing our approach. We work collaboratively to do these layouts and to evaluate all aspects of the space.

Prior to coming back, as we were ramping back up after mid-summer, Facilities Management, led by Dan Severino and crew, went through systematically and serviced several hundred mechanical systems that serve over 85 buildings around campus. Every single one of those was cleaned: the coils were cleaned and the filters were upgraded where possible. Everything was set to a standard cycle. So it depends on the equipment; there’s no fast, hard rule that goes across the board. Everything is being followed up on and checked by my group.

Controls that are being put in the classrooms is a cap on the capacity, depending on the spacing. We want to make sure that nobody is seated closer than six feet to each other, including space for an individual occupant. We want to make sure that there are sanitizing materials available for people to wipe down their space, as you would at a gym, before and after use. And custodial services have been enhanced around campus, both for continuous high-touch disinfection, using CDC-approved components or products, as well as deep cleaning periodically.

On whether students are allowed to gather in person in small groups for events and any updates on policy changes regarding student activities on campus:

Marla Gold: We’ve given the office that oversees student activities guidelines that really have to do with the basics. The most important things that they know they have to do are, of course, face-masking, no eating, paying attention to distance when they do activities, limiting the numbers of folks that can be together, and using the Health Checker app. We make sure we have a list of attendees, because while we haven’t had issues where we had to go through the list and contract trace, we always want to know who’s together. We also care about the venue where this is going on. But as long as students meet basic guidelines, we’ve given them the go-ahead with limited activities and we’re seeing more of that around campus.

Anna Koulas: [Student groups] can submit events via Student Life. And they do this through a Qualtrics submission that has been approved.

Jon Chase: The main things have to do with ventilation and spacing and occupancy. We want to see how many people they are expecting to attend, over what kind of time frame. And can this space safely support the event? If it can’t, then we would make recommendations on alternative spaces. We don’t want to be an impediment to the process or to the event, but we want to make sure that it’s being done in a manner that is responsible.

Anna Koulas: I wanted to clarify for individuals who are interested in hosting a meeting or guests on campus, you should submit an event protocol form. You can find that on the ROC website. You can also search on the FAQs there to get access to that link so that you can submit a request. We ask for that submission so we know who was on our campus, where they were visiting, when they were visiting and so on and so forth, should an incident occur.

On what student activity is like on campus:

Marla Gold: For those of you who haven’t been on campus for a while, students are doing their best and working with faculty who are overseeing them, doing things like bonfires spaced apart appropriately. There was a drive-in but with pods in cars. It’s not like it was, but it’s coming back now and it’s quite wonderful to see.

Jon Chase: It’s really exciting to see some of the things come back to life on campus. There are people doing trips to museums, ice skating, bowling. The campfire set-up is amazing, where we have lots of different small outdoor campfires with Adirondack chairs adequately spaced around them and it’s monitored and watched. The drive-in movie theater was a big hit and that’s continuing. So lots of campus activities have increased. The student centers have all opened and activated. There’s starting to be a vibe.