With September quickly approaching, Drexel University anticipates a limited reopening of campus for the upcoming fall term. However, many students and faculty are understandably wary of the return, especially since Drexel has yet to release a detailed plan about what a socially-distanced, COVID-combatting campus will look like. The student body received an email from President John Fry Thursday morning titled “Watchwords for the Fall: Best Practices, Flexibility, Working Together.” The email resembles many others sent over the past few weeks: emphasizing the importance of protecting campus health and safety without detailing the specific changes that will be made to ensure it happens.
Fry’s message does specify that compliance with social distancing, mask wearing and hand washing rules will be expected, and it promises that Drexel is using science and expert opinions to make its decisions, but this is still too ambiguous. While the need for potential changes to student move-in, face-to-face classes, dining and housing is acknowledged, the email fails to outline exactly what those expected changes will be.
By contrast, the University of Pennsylvania has had a more comprehensive plan for reopening outlined since June 25. The university shared the measures being made to campus housing, dining and arrival dates; this includes renting off-campus space for extra housing, providing private bedrooms, limiting in-person classes to 25 students, switching dining options to pre-packaged meals and staggering student move-in dates. Outlining these changes not only allows students to feel more secure about their fall semester, but also gives uneasy students clear options before they make a decision about returning to campus.
Although Fry’s communications promise the University will “remain adaptable” and “pivot and adjust as needed,” many Drexel students want concrete action over the promised flexibility. Detailed measures are required to instill confidence that the safety of students and staff is being taken seriously.
Of the many logistical issues to weigh, controlling the crowd of a reopened campus is one that should be a high priority. Hallway traffic between classes is a huge concern in both academic buildings and student housing. We hope Drexel considers mitigating the close-quarters congestion in these areas — some solutions include staggering the ending times of classes in the same building, or limiting the number of classes that can be held in one space. The use of stairs and elevators should also be considered, as these are places that get very crowded between classes, and they are often impossible to avoid.
The University of Pennsylvania also intends to test students before they re-enter campus and regularly throughout the term. Though Drexel’s new Health Tracker app promises to use the information it collects during the fall term to adapt and create new testing plans, it is unacceptable that we should wait for the spread of infection before deciding on a solid strategy. Fraternities and other student-run organizations should also be closely monitored to ensure that crowded parties aren’t threatening the spread of infection, with clear consequences for those who intentionally break those rules.
Another big question is whether there will have to be a reversion back to remote learning. Is there going to be a set number of infected students at which Drexel will close down? And if Drexel does have to shut down again, how will they do it? It cannot be a mad scramble like it was in March; it would have to be tightly organized and closely monitored for student safety.
Reopening policies should also be more accommodating to potentially sudden changes to students’ health. It is expected that any student who suspects to have COVID-19 should not attend class, but are there policies that guarantee that they will not be penalized for their absence? While many Drexel professors are understanding, it is important that students know they don’t need to risk others’ health for fear of a failing grade.
The health of the faculty will also be put at risk if in-person classes resume, and if students are more worried about their academic standing than their personal health, they could risk accidentally exposing both their fellow classmates and the professor.
There are clearly so many unknown and unforeseeable variables, but as new developments are discovered and the situation continues to change, we hope that the administration can offer some more clarity on the specifics of fall reopening while prioritizing the safety of our faculty and students.