With students just over two weeks into the Spring 2021 semester and COVID-19 cases on the rise, Lehigh held — and “strongly encouraged” students to attend — an hour-long discussion with the university’s COVID-19 Response Team (CRT) Tuesday afternoon.
Four members of the CRT — Lehigh Provost Nathan Urban; Ric Hall, vice president for Student Affairs; David Rubenstein, executive director of Health & Wellness Center; and Sarah L. Stevens, medical director of the Health & Wellness Center — answered a number of questions that were submitted prior to the discussion, along with a few that trickled in via a live Q&A feature during the town hall. Chris Halladay, associate vice president for Human Resources, moderated the discussion.
Urban noted Lehigh had 158 active COVID-19 cases on campus at the time of the town hall meeting, representing a 2.63% positivity rate averaged across all the pre-arrival and on-arrival tests.
“That positivity rate has been going up in recent days, which is a source of significant concern,” Urban said.
He outlined a number of changes that Lehigh made for the spring semester, including a significant increase in testing and the number of people trained to contract trace compared to the fall semester. Lehigh is hoping to improve its communications to campus in regards to COVID-19 as well, beginning with the town hall. In addition, Urban explained that the CRT is meeting weekly with representatives from the undergraduate and graduate student senates, the Faculty Senate and ERAC to discuss concerns and issues.
The university’s COVID dashboard has also been updated, according to Urban, and a web page has been created to track the current status of what is closed on campus, and what is not allowed, to avoid confusion.
Before Halladay began presenting submitted questions to the CRT members assembled for the town hall, Urban noted that due to the increasing positivity rate, Lehigh reversed its decision on allowing in-person dining, for the time being. Urban cited the significant risk posed while eating since it’s something that can’t be done while wearing a mask. He said the university is continuing to assess other high-risk activities with social gatherings being the greatest concern.
Urban said, however, he hoped the recent trends in positivity rate could be reversed, allowing Lehigh to open more of campus, including gyms, and permit other in-person social activities.
“We certainly want to make campus as open as it can be, as long as it can be done safely,” Urban said. “We’re enthusiastic about trying to reverse some of these restrictions and make it possible for students to do some of these activities, both educationally and socially, etc. And so I think that we want to be moving in that direction, but we can't do it … [while] constantly raising the trend [in positivity rate and cases].”
Urban said Lehigh is looking at options to potentially hold an in-person graduation by the end of the semester. Later in the call he predicted a decision on Commencement would likely need to be made by March.
Hall addressed the enforcement of compliance with COVID precautions on campus. Hall said since none of the precautions and restrictions are new, students were advised earlier this semester that the severity of sanctions for COVID-related violations has increased. He said it’s important that infractions are addressed in real-time by students, staff and sometimes the police, since sanctions can only address issues that have already occurred.
Hall, along with Rubenstein and Stevens, stressed much of the same messaging that health and safety officials have been saying for the past year — wash hands frequently, socially distance, keep indoor social gatherings limited (Hall specifically said five people or less at this time) and wear masks. Hall said students can request the use of empty spaces on campus where they can safely gather, including lounge areas on the University Center’s second floor, the Multicultural Center (M-Room), the Pride Center and the Center for Gender Equity.
“Any spaces on campus that can be accessed by card access are available for students and these spaces are already taped off,” Hall said. “We have safety measures in place. The cleaning staffs are in the buildings during the day, as they have been throughout the pandemic. So, we just ask students to explore different uses of spaces on campus and we'll do the same.”
With concerns over students’ mental health and wellness, Rubenstein listed a number of resources for students, such as Lehigh’s Counseling & Psychological Services website, and also highlighted a new tool available for free to students this semester — Headspace, a meditation app. Hall also emphasized the need for faculty and staff to check in with students and students to check in with each other. Hall said a town hall will be held on mental health and wellness in the “next several days,” providing additional guidance, tips and resources for students.
As for the Fall 2021 semester, Urban said he was “relatively optimistic” about what things might look like, assuming vaccines should be widely available by late summer. Rubenstein echoed that sentiment and both agreed it should lead to a decline in the overall number of COVID-19 cases, making management of the virus over the next few months critical.