Faculty and Staff Town Hall Recap: Updates on Caregiver Support, Testing and What Comes Next

The “Mario the Magnificent” statue on Drexel’s University City Campus was recently outfitted with a face mask.
The “Mario the Magnificent” statue on Drexel’s University City Campus was recently outfitted with a face mask.

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

During a virtual town hall for faculty and professional staff held on Sept. 16, Drexel University leadership provided updates on Drexel’s new and ongoing procedures related to returning to campus and working remotely, among other updates. During the hourlong event, members of the University’s Return Oversight Committee discussed health and safety updates and answered pre-submitted questions solicited from University employees.

“Our faculty and professional staff are doing extraordinary work — during difficult and uncertain conditions that we're having — successfully to meet the needs of our students in so many ways with teaching, with research and in serving our community,” Drexel President John Fry said at the beginning of the event. “I am incredibly proud of how Drexel is responding to this pandemic, a situation that requires agility, patience, the ability to operate during times of uncertainty and, most of all, a caring and compassionate community.”

Some of the panelists’ thoughts and responses have been excerpted in a lightly edited transcript below.

Supporting Caregiving Faculty and Professional Staff

Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer Megan Weyler: There are so many of us dealing with situations [where we are] caring for individuals. We have so many faculty and professional staff attempting to hold down families, support individuals, as well as keep a high level of performance maintained to Drexel. Being flexible is something that we can all assist everyone with; that, as well as having patience. That would be the first step I would really ask everyone to do.

Last week, we sent out a survey to faculty and staff and asked about some learning resources that may be needed for their children. We are looking to put together a program that would provide such services, whether it’s homework help, tutoring or extracurricular activities. We received a little over 600 responses with a great outpouring of assistance needed. There are so many tutoring programs already in place that have excellent resources that they have already proven to be of value. We’re hoping to gain information from those areas to provide to our dependents here. We will have more information coming about that soon.

There is a Drexel parents group [the Drexel Parents listserv] at the University with many resources that you can learn from your colleagues. The group will soon be presented in the H.R. newsletter, if you are interested, whether it’s kind of figuring out some techniques in working from home and dealing with your children while they’re doing remote learning or just talking with colleagues who completely understand what you’re going through.

Planning for the Months Ahead

Executive Vice President and Nina Henderson Provost Paul E. Jensen: I think for perspective, it's important to think about the previous spring and summer terms and also the year that lies ahead. This COVID event for us is not about one or two terms, but probably six quarters, something like a year and a half. In our planning groups, we’ve talked about our approach being analogous to crawling and walking and running. We began our on-campus activity with the central research, only our crawling phase, and now as we move from summer to fall, we are expanding research on-campus activities through our research ramp up, where we are now moving from 33 percent capacity to 66 percent capacity.

Vice Provost for Community Health Care Innovation and Director of the Return Oversight Committee Marla Gold, MD: We are beginning meetings later this week and into next week to look at the winter quarter. Under President Fry’s leadership, along with the provost and others, the issue will be guided by, in no special order, the experience of others in the region, which we continue to learn from; guidance from the Philadelphia health department; predictions about COVID’s behavior in the winter months and its impact; and pedagogy.

It’s not a full-blown new planning process, but we hope to have an answer no later than the end of October and possibly even before then, because the health department may be asking us to submit our plan for reopening for the next quarter before the end of October. All of this to say that I expect by the latest, early November, we will know and hopefully even sooner.

The Current Status of Return to Campus Phases

Megan Weyler: Faculty and staff have received letters regarding which phase they will return to work in. We are in Phase 3, which is those who were expected to return back to campus in the fall. Phase 4 begins during winter term. If the question is really to address “Am I going to return in phase four for winter term or will it be adjusted?” That answer is yet to come. Currently, the information that’s available on the coronavirus site is correct.

Protocols for Phase 4 Faculty and Professional Staff Visiting Campus This Fall

Megan Weyler: As many of you remember, when the campus was closed, we had some fairly strict protocols in place where you needed to go to your division head first to obtain approval to access campus, which then went to your business partner to work with our Public Safety and security office to be escorted to your area. I’m happy to tell you that that is not the process currently for those who are expected to return to Phase 4. We understand that there may be a reason for you to be on campus to come and pick up some equipment or resources that you have. You will not need to go through a lengthy process; just reach out to your division head, let them know that you will be coming to campus and you can proceed in doing so.

Addressing HVAC Systems and Airflow in Campus Buildings

Vice President of Real Estate and Facilities Donald E. Moore: Close to seven million square feet is what we’ve been preparing, both older and the newer spaces across our campuses and even beyond our campus. Spaces are ready for research activity and we’re ready for next week when some students begin coming back.

Where necessary and where possible, depending on the system age and condition and quality performance assessment, spaces have been either enhanced by way of additional HVAC airflow, built upgrades or introduction of outside air, and any spaces that were deemed to be less than insufficient in their current state of the condition are either being supplemented with portable added filtration and/or ventilation, further reduced occupancy in that particular space, or instead removing the space from service until it can be enhanced accordingly.

We are following and respecting and responding to evolving science and evolving guidelines, and we’re collaborating with all operating units for space assignments. The spaces that you are occupying should be understood to be safe for use. We’re also enhancing our cleaning; they’re in full effect and a full complement of custodial staffing are working throughout the campus, and sanitary dispensers and disposable wipes are deployed across campus. Lastly, most importantly, if there are any location-specific space preparedness questions, use or occupancy questions, please direct them to the facilities operations liaison representing your particular department.

Costs of Reconfigured Office Spaces

Donald Moore: For starters, make sure that you get facilities and operations management involved to review those needs you may have. If it’s relocating existing furniture around within a space or department, then operations will likely handle that at no charge. If there is a need for a construction or purchase of new furniture, that may be a chargeable work order that needs to be processed. So just get together with the departmental leader who will act as a liaison to our facilities operations team and we’ll make a case-by-case assessment.

New COVID-19 Dashboard

Marla Gold: When you go to the “Response to Coronavirus” website, you’ll see that under health and safety, there is a dashboard and it will tell you what is going on for a particular day. Currently, you’ll see there’s an asterisk and it says this is a short version of active cases defined as people who actively have COVID and whether they’ve been on campus, off campus or non-campus.

Having said that, when someone has COVID and they’re diagnosed, they undergo contact tracing. If you are exposed to them, you would be part of the people who would be alerted because by definition, contact tracing would connect to you. Those systems have all been in place and working with the city of Philadelphia and also at the University for months.

You deserve, we all do, much more data than this point in time. I did put up a note that we will be making a much more sophisticated way to communicate with you what’s happening. You should be seeing the number of tests daily. You should be seeing the number of positives from those tests on a regular basis. You should know the cumulative case rates. And we’re aware of that. Please understand and bear with us. It takes a little while and a different kind of software to give you that kind of information so that we can show you testing over time and positivity rates of individuals who are being tested both in terms of employees and students. Please know that we are updating and I hope within the next two weeks to have more thorough information. There’s also a built-in lag to the information that comes to you. Quite frankly, that’s just the lag in testing results, as well as the lag in contact tracing. That’s normal. You’ll see this wherever you go when people are giving testing information.

I think the most important take home from me today on this is: we know and we’re working on it. I always welcome hearing at our email ROC@drexel.edu more suggestions for how to improve it. But I hope that you’ll like what you see over the next couple of weeks.

Surveillance Testing

Marla Gold: Testing is also used for augmentation with surveillance and screening of key populations. We have baseline testing of all people who are interfacing with the campus. If you received a “please register for a test” email, it’s because you’re either listed a phase in that would bring you in during the fall quarter or you’re here already and we’re testing you again. We are getting a picture of the campus and that picture will help us shape further testing. It will give us important data; if we find high rates of positives that are asymptomatic, that might make us pivot a different way. It may help us reach out to different at-risk populations that suddenly are identified in our baseline testing.

I want to stress that the idea of baseline testing was given to us by our scientific advisory committee and I try and follow what the advisory committee does. There’s no gold standard of how to test asymptomatic people in the United States at universities, but the vast majority of top universities like ours agree that some form of augmentation through testing of asymptomatic at-risk populations is important. We’re doing that with baseline testing.

For any of you that have been in the gym and the DAC already. I was there yesterday for the test. It’s comfortable. You are protected. It’s private. You’ll also get a very lovely cloth mask from Drexel and some hand sanitizer and more directions about safe behaviors.

We’re no longer open in terms of dorms or Greek housing. The plan was to do surveillance testing; that is, testing a certain percent of students living in high-risk areas, students living in things like dorms, etc. But that surveillance strategy will now go to certain students that are living in high rises, such as American Campus Communities properties near campus. Please realize that we’re attempting to test students that are in properties that we may not control. I do want to share with you that we have found students to be delightful and cooperative and they want to know about their health and we’re working with them as best as we can.

Student Testing

Senior Vice President for Student Success Subir Sahu, PhD: Outside of the testing that we’re doing from a baseline surveillance perspective, we do provide testing through the Student Health Center and we would bill through that student’s insurance. Most insurance carriers would cover the cost of the tests, but depending on the insurance provider, they may be subject to co-pays. Currently, testing through the Health Center is reserved for individuals that are symptomatic or have had significant exposure. If a student were to walk in, we would evaluate them through a provider and then determine if testing is available or needed at that moment. The direct answer to that question is yes, we do provide testing for the health center. We would just navigate it on a case by case basis.

Human Research Subjects Testing

Executive Vice Provost for Research Aleister Saunders, PhD: There will not be testing provided to subjects unless they are a Drexel employee or student. The University-supported COVID-19 baseline testing and surveillance testing will only be covering Drexel faculty, staff and students that are on campus this fall. Researchers who have participants for human subjects research coming to campus or their offices should follow the guidelines that we developed and these are posted in the resources section of the Research Ramp Up website. This deals with close contact interactions that’s less than six feet for more than 15 minutes. We have guidance that we developed in collaboration with the Environmental Health and Safety, and they’re called face-to-face interaction guidance. If you have any questions about this or any other research ramp up questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to through the research ramp team email address.

Working with Philadelphia and Area Universities

Marla Gold: The Philadelphia Department of Public Health convenes institutions of higher education from the city of Philadelphia on a weekly basis every Thursday morning. Those of us who are working in the area of COVID prevention and control and containment meet from all of the institutions and we trade ideas. We also get updated guidance from the City of Philadelphia. I’m happy to say that Drexel, through our leadership here, is spearheading a group of institutions of higher ed to come together and work more. The best I can do is assure you that we know about it. We totally agree. And if anything, we, along with others, particularly from Temple, LaSalle, Jefferson, Penn, Moore, Community College of Philadelphia — we all believe that we’re dealing with very many of the same things and the same people. It’s better to do it together than to separate us.