Student Takeaways From Return Oversight Committee Q&A Series

Drexel Kline School of Law students in class during fall term. Photo by Ben Wong.
Drexel Kline School of Law students in class during fall term. Photo by Ben Wong.

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 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 ranged from complimentary COVID-19 testing and vaccine access to Student Life activity and Commencement.

Some of the panelists’ thoughts and responses have been excerpted in a lightly edited transcript below. For additional information, please refer to the Student FAQs page on the ‘Drexel’s Response to Coronavirus’ website, and email with additional questions and concerns.

Vaccination and Testing

On vaccine distribution and requirement 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 the [Pennsylvania] commonwealth. And we at Drexel, because we’re a business in Philadelphia, refer to the local health department and Philadelphia guidelines when we talk about vaccine

If you live outside of Philadelphia, there may be different things that apply to you and vaccine may be more eligible at this time. 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.

…Our ideal plan is to work with the health department and vaccinate our employees under Phase 1C. I’m feeling more and more confident by the day that that will be before the summer, but we don’t have a date yet.

We had one clinic to date that we ran — you can call it two because it involved two injections, but one series — for phase 1A, mostly health care students and we do have a few clinical settings and we have some labs for people who work directly with the virus that causes COVID-19 disease. So under 1A, because we don’t have a central hospital, the city came in with vaccine and helped us — we did not do it on our own — to vaccinate and we set up a way to do that in Behrakis Hall. That’s it for us. A one time, phase 1A clinic with a return for those people for the second injection. Now, the city likes the set up and they’ve asked if they could use it to bring in people that they schedule, where they bring in the vaccine and 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 us, as an institution moving forward, 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, it is emergency use authorization or EUA; it has not been fully FDA approved. While 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 data coming, all pointing to the safety of these new vaccines. What we want to do is first, see it fully FDA approved. And second, see what the state does; that is, will the state make a mandate? Really, that will help all institutions of higher ed if we see that it’s a mandate coming from the health authority. And then lastly, and there’s a longer list but for the purposes of this town hall, mandating 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 really 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.

I’ll take one minute to comment: of all of the things — still, face coverings and distance remain the mainstays, along with strong HVAC — heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. These are very important. And I would point that we add screening and testing for asymptomatic key populations in congregate settings. We’ve been able to do extremely well — knock on whatever — for this quarter. To date, there is no evidence of any transmission in an academic setting or an administrative setting- of infection 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 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 — our dorms, those who live in our Greek housing, as well as students who live in ACC [American Campus Communities] and API [Academic Properties, Inc.] housing. All of our athletes are tested at a minimum of weekly. Those in competitive play — our basketball teams, men’s and women’s, were approved for competitive season — 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. So giving young people — for their mental health and their physical abilities and academics — these points of engagement have been very important for them as we go on.

We’re currently close to three to four thousand 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 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 that originated in the U.K. 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]. We do, if you forget your mask, have extra surgical-grade masks around the campus in strategic locations. We’re taking a look at providing more of the cloth masks moving to 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 do 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. Cases are falling all over the United States, including here, or they were surging at the same time, so that is no longer a key question and I regret that it’s still lingering on the app. 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. And 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 really shouldn’t be doing that yet], if you have to do it and you do it, you are 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. I have to say that we 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 and those of us who look at things really are on the other end.

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

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 — I don’t have the data with me today, forgive me — much safer than most expected. SEPTA is dealing with some issues on their platforms and just really booting back up and getting ready, because there are a lot of people returning to their offices in the late spring and summer and fall.

Academics and Commencement

On planning courses for the spring term:

Executive Vice President and Nina Henderson Provost Paul E. Jensen: I think one of the things we’ve been experiencing is, as I talked to some of the deans, we’ve been having some high-flex sections where students aren’t necessarily coming in large numbers. At the same time, we know that we have students who 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 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 particularly our undergraduate face-to-face course offerings for summer. I think the other thing I would mention is that 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 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 really depends on when social distancing restrictions will be lifted. In terms of thinking about getting back to, quote unquote, 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 is functioning. 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. I would end my comments by saying that at this point we need everyone to be prepared to be back, because it may be that we need everybody back.

Marla Gold: I would just add very quickly, absolutely, 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, and that tentative plan calls for schools and colleges once again having 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.

Campus and Student Life

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 food, paying attention to distance when they do activities, the numbers of folks that can be together, and if they’re doing something on the outside and they have to employ the Health Checker app and know about health before getting together. And most important is having a list of attendees, because while we haven’t had issues where we had to go through the list, we always want to know who’s together. We also care about the venue where this is going on. But as long as they 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.

Assistant Vice President of Environmental Health & Radiation Safety 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.

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 working with faculty who are overseeing them, doing things like bonfires spaced apart appropriately. There was a drive-in but with pods in cars where people could go. 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.

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 really 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 ventilation in the URBN Building:

Jon Chase: The URBN Building and the HVAC system that services that building is relatively new, within the past several years, and it's a very smart, efficient system. The problem with being smart and efficient is it doesn't give you room for enhanced service, which has been requested by the CDC and the Department of Health. What we're getting in that building is plenty of outdoor air per person, but we're not getting the circulation. In other words, the air is not being sucked out of a room and replaced as quickly as what we would want to see. So we're supplementing that system with portable air purifying units. We understand that due to the large number of those units, it's noisy inside the building. We are offering a solution for that. Now, there's a couple of different options on the table and we are working to identify a means to give the same level of service at a lower decibel rate.

On ventilation in University Crossings:

Jon Chase: [As with the URBN Building], some buildings are set up with HVAC systems that are limited in their ability to be enhanced. This is dramatically affected, in some cases, during the winter months when the outdoor air is very, very cold. University Crossings is one of those areas served by equipment that cannot be run above and beyond its normal programed specs in really, really cold temperatures. So as we pull into the warmer months, University Crossings will be increased to an outdoor air intake of over 50 percent, which is a significant increase in the number of air changes per hour in those spaces. We will also be looking at this on room-by-room basis. We have design criteria on what the flow is in and out of each of those rooms and any room that falls short that is needed for spring or summer term will be provided with supplemental air purifiers.

On lab space in New College Building and student capacities for spring term:

Jon Chase: There's two different types of labs in the New College Building. There are teaching labs, like the Gross Anatomy Lab, or the Simulation labs that are used by medicine and nursing. Those types of labs are programmatically filled to the capacity through the academic process.

The research laboratories are mapped out with maximum capacities. However, as students that are allowed in those research laboratories go through part of the research ramp-up process. So we may have posted maximum occupancy of, say, twelve in a particular laboratory. But if the research ramp-up process hasn't been vetted to have that many people in operation yet, and with that number of undergraduates, that's something that's beyond our immediate control. So it really depends on what type of lab they're referring to. If somebody has questions about this or wants specific information, I would encourage them to email me and I'll be more than happy to give additional information.