photo by Kate Nuelle
As some college campuses are experiencing spikes in COVID-19 cases or have already sent students home, Trinity stands out for its low positivity rate. Other private universities in the San Antonio area are doing relatively well too, UIW having reported 29 total cases to-date and St. Mary’s just 26; Trinity has reported 13.
According to Eric Maloof, vice president of Enrollment Management, the planning process for bringing students back to campus was flexible and took into account the changing health conditions over the summer.
“It was fluid. I think people now know that when we make a decision, that decision is still fluid, and that decision could still change if the conditions around us change because things are so uncertain. The most important thing is we provided our students and our community comprehensive information as quickly as possible. At the beginning of the summer, the health conditions in San Antonio were very different than they were toward the end of the summer, so we sent a survey and found that most students wanted to live on campus,” said Maloof. “What happened was the health conditions in San Antonio changed drastically over the summer and the number of hospitalizations spiked, and we felt like we had to downgrade our scenario back to having a limited number of students back on campus.”
The medical team at The University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) noted that the planning process at their university began early. Much like at Trinity, task force groups were formed to address different areas of concern and community health experts were consulted.
“At UIW, we began reviewing our Infectious Disease Response Plans back in March of 2020 when cases of COVID-19 began increasing internationally. Shortly after, we activated our Incident Command structure and university classes went remote across the country. We then immediately began planning for the safest way to have students return to campus. UIW created committees that focused on specific areas like academics, housing, meals, health services, safety, international students, athletics and communications that are essential to the university,” wrote the UIW medical team in an email statement. “Input was gathered from all members of the UIW community as well as specialists within the Bexar County community. UIW is fortunate to have experts in the medical, nursing, engineering, epidemiology, communications, risk and safety areas that were all active participants in the plan. We created a phased-in approach to re-socializing the campus and provided education on COVID-19 through multiple platforms.”
Sneha Suresh, a sophomore biology major attending St. Mary’s University, described the various precautions taken to curb the spread of COVID-19 on campus.
“The social distancing is a little difficult because you study with people and you go to the library and whatnot. The cafeteria, you try to socially distance there, as well. But for the most part, people just take the food because it is packaged for you, and most students choose to eat outside rather than inside like how it normally would have been or they just head back to their dorm. Plus, there’s not a lot of people living on-campus anyway, so it’s not like you are around people 24/7, so it does help with social distancing,” said Suresh.
In order to minimize contact between students, Trinity opted to have certain groups study remotely this semester. Maloof emphasized that while this decision was difficult in some respects, the situation remains fluid, and may change in spring 2021.
“Unfortunately, [COVID-19] put us in a position where we could not house every student on campus that raised their hand and said they wanted to be on campus. We made the difficult decision to prioritize based on a number of factors, knowing that we would re-prioritize at the beginning of the spring semester. We have occupancy for 2,097 and our original plan was to have approximately 16-to-1700 students and we downgraded that to 1000, and currently, we have 961 students on campus … 751 of them in the resident halls and 210 of them in City Vista. We have 948 [students] in San Antonio, living somewhere in Bexar County, and 776 students living beyond San Antonio.”
Suresh explained she is taking the majority of her classes remotely, with her one in-person class being a socially-distanced lab.
“Most classes are virtual [and] there are a few in-person classes. I have a lab that’s in-person, but there are only five or six people allowed at each time and you have to sit at a table by yourself,” said Suresh.
The UIW medical team emphasized that surveillance testing, contact tracing and quarantine regulations have been instituted to protect and provide care for students on campus
“UIW’s testing plan consists of testing all symptomatic individuals, baseline testing and surveillance testing for students, employees, and vendors throughout the year. All members of UIW Health Services and Sports Medicine have completed the John Hopkins Contact Tracing course. We work directly with San Antonio Metropolitan Health District to provide timely contact tracing for all UIW community members who have had at risk contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Students, employees, and vendors report their COVID-19 diagnosis or COVID-19 like symptoms on the UIW COVID-19 Illness Reporting Form. UIW Health Services receives an immediate alert on all positive reports. UIW initiates contact tracing as soon as a positive case is identified. Students living in the Residence Halls are offered housing in the designated isolation space with daily medical checks. Students living off-campus and on-campus will have access to medical care, counseling, academic support and mission and ministry services,” the UIW medical team wrote.
Like at Trinity, Suresh noted that the St. Mary’s students input their daily symptoms in a health portal, where they are notified if they should be tested. If a student tests positive, they are asked to isolate to keep themselves and the campus community safe from the virus.
“Students aren’t really tested on a monthly or weekly basis or anything like that. But on our health portal, we input if we start to feel any symptoms, if we feel perfectly healthy, or if we are exhibiting any side effects of COVID. You are allowed to request testing if you want to see if you have COVID. If you do test positive for COVID, for students that are within a 200-mile radius, they have to go back home to quarantine for two weeks. If you live farther than that, you can stay on campus, and they have a residence hall designated for students that need to quarantine,” said Suresh.
UIW has also put in place a rigorous quarantine and isolation procedure to ensure that students receive quality care and support.
“UIW students who are required to quarantine after an at-risk contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 are called by a UIW Health Services representative and informed about their contact risk while maintaining the privacy of the individual who tested positive for COVID-19. Students are then asked about how they feel. Students who live in the residence halls are offered housing in the designated quarantine space on campus. Students are given instructions on how to quarantine safely for 14-days and keep their friends and family well. We allow time for students to ask questions, as the need to quarantine is often unexpected. UIW Health Services then emails the student with an educational handout on quarantine and what to do if they develop symptoms of COVID-19. Students are given information for support services on campus, which include Health Services, Behavioral Health, Mission of Ministry, Residence Life and Academic Support,” wrote the UIW medical team.
Trinity’s low positivity rate in comparison to other universities can largely be attributed to thoughtful planning and student responsibility, according to Maloof.
“Some schools have had positivity rates that are just unbelievably high numbers, in the thousands. Whereas you see other institutions where they are lower, but they still have cases. I think we would be fooling ourselves to think we are going to have a zero positivity rate. We now know a lot more about it [COVID-19] than we did 6 months ago. We are listening to health officials, and we are taking their advice extraordinarily seriously. Number two, people are following the rules, by and large. That’s the reason we are in this position,” Maloof said.
Trinity has been investing in tracing, testing, and isolation efforts so each student can feel safe and productive during their time on campus.
“We truly are investing: It’s not just bringing you back, it’s creating an environment that you safe and you feel like you can be productive. That costs money, and to-date we have spent approximately $1600 per student at the institution standing that stuff up. That number will continue to grow as we learn more about what it takes to create an environment that is both safe and enjoyable,” Maloof continued.
According to Maloof, Trinity’s measured approach to reopening campus allowed for students to make their own choices concerning their studies while still following COVID-19 safety guidelines.
“I think it’s different in some ways to two groups of institutions. We have seen some institutions have no students on campus, where they basically shut down their campus, and everybody is learning remotely and living remotely. And we’re different from that group. We are also different from a group of schools that have gone back full force. Everybody is back. Some institutions have taken significant precautions, even though they have everybody back, some have carried on as though this [COVID-19] doesn’t exist. I think we are different in that we have taken a cautious and phased approach that we believe is reasonable and takes into the health and safety of not only our students, but all Trinity community members, “ Maloof said.