Vassar College President Talks About Spring Plans During The Pandemic
With the experience of the fall semester under their belts, college presidents have been rolling out their plans for the spring. At Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, President Dr. Elizabeth Bradley says the fall semester went well with relatively few COVID-19 cases. She spoke with WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne, whose bureau is based at Vassar, about spring plans. Bradley, a global health expert, also discusses how the country is responding to the pandemic.
“Well, Allison, our semester last semester actually went very well. As you remember, we did talk about the framework we were using, which we called the island model, but it allowed students to come to campus, be tested, be negative, and then really stay on campus. And we tried very hard to have any visitors that were not absolutely essential for our operations to not visit campus for a whole semester. And it worked,” Bradley says. “Generally, we had a very low case count. I think over the entire semester we had about 45 students who had positive tests, although none were symptomatic. So they were all sort of asymptomatic, tested, isolated for their time, and then back to school. We had no on-campus spread at all. So most of the cases, most of the cases happened as students were moving back to school. You're first testing them and kind of getting them to the place of being negative. And we also had very few employees test positive. And so far, so good, we're really, knocking on wood, we can repeat it this spring."
“Given the fall that you did have, how did that inform your plans for the spring? And what are the plans for the spring?” Dunne asks.
“Well, the fall really helped us test all, develop and test all these systems, the testing system, the how to get students to actually adhere to the expectations of masking and social distancing, and staying on campus, coordinating with the town and being sure that they understood what we needed and getting vendors to come to help us and us to support them. We tested all those systems. So for those systems, I feel like we're in very good shape. We kind of just have to do it again,” says Bradley. “The parts that are different is first, in Dutchess County, the prevalence of COVID, as you know, is so much higher than it was. When we started contemplating coming back in the fall, we were getting six, eight cases a day. And now I think we have 2,300 cases, active cases, right now in the county. So it's very different. The implication of that for us is we will absolutely keep the perimeter of our campus, you know, we really will not have visitors from outside and we will not let students leave the campus once they've moved in. So that's even more important, I think, given our surroundings. And the other difference is the students have been through it once, so they're a little bit more, like they understand what it means to go into quarantine, self-quarantine. And I think they're going to be even more attentive, understanding this is serious, and you really have to abide by the expectations. And I feel pretty confident they'll do that.”
“Now what about, I'm obviously familiar with the Vassar campus, and students like to go off because right there, there are eateries and some places that they frequent, and that, those businesses rely heavily on Vassar students and faculty, you know, for, for their livelihood. What is working or not working in terms of that? I mean, are they able to deliver? How are you keeping them in business and they keeping your, your students fed outside of the grab-and-go dining offer?” Dunne asks.
“It's a great question, and really important to us how we have stayed in relationship with the Arlington businesses and the town around us. So one of the things we do is we bring vendors on campus to actually sell to our students and, you know, Munchie, Monday, Tasty Tuesday, and there's several other opportunities where we have really set them up, all by the protocols, we have lots of protocols for them,” says Bradley. “And they and our students just glom on to businesses that come on to campus to sell because, of course, they aren't able to just walk down themselves. So we have had pretty much most of the businesses that have wanted to have been able to come, and some every week to actually sell. In addition, we have done all kinds of things where we're ordering food and they just deliver; that's a little bit different because it's just the delivery. But that also has been very robust, and our students, even if they're in self quarantine, they can put in an order and get the food delivered, you know, to outside where they are in self quarantine. So, so far so good. I think we really have been able to keep the businesses, at least, you know, having some business from ambassador and certainly our students have appreciated their support.”
“And as you know, President Bradley, the vaccination situation, distribution, you know, there's, there's a vaccine shortage among the counties, how has this changed any, anything for your plans and are your educators, administrators etcetera on, on campus, getting vaccinated?” Dunne asks.
“The presence of a vaccine has, first, made us all much more optimistic than we were. I mean, to actually imagine, over the months ahead, that the vaccine will roll out across the country and the globe is just very exciting. Where would we be if we did not have that hope in front of us. However, we definitely understand this is going to take time. And even if people were vaccinated, we still know that it's not 100 percent foolproof. And we don't really have the evidence yet that, if you're vaccinated, you don't still, if you get the disease, spread it to other people. And you have to have two doses, there are a lot of reasons to not get too overexcited about it. So we're trying to contain our hopefulness with some check of reality of really what the science is telling us about this,” Bradley says. “And we have, in fact, applied to be a distribution site for the vaccine. I don't know if Vassar will be selected to do that. But we'd be eager to support our community in that way. And we are encouraging faculty who are in 1B, they're able to get it, they're eligible now, to go out to the websites and try to find an appointment and several have. These appointments now are really end of March, beginning of April, but several have found appointments. I will say, through this whole experience, our local leadership in public health and in government have been so supportive. I have calls every couple days with our county public health department, our county executive, state senator, you know, the state public health people, and it's made a big difference for us.”
“I also just wanted to ask you to go through the testing protocol. Is it going to be the same as it was in the fall, I mean, now we have, I think there's a requirement now federally for any international travelers to present a negative COVID test, which of course, would affect your international students,” says Dunne.
“Our testing regime is going to be slightly different as we've tried to adapt to the kinds of tests that are available to us now. And I think it's actually going to be more effective. So we always had required students to have a pre-arrival test taken. So this new requirement that international travelers have a test taken three days before they get here is totally consistent with what we required already. So that's not really a change for us, but I'm also glad to see that. I think that's a very good safety measure,” says Bradley. “We will also require that for people who are just walking down the street from college view into Vassar, if they're coming onto campus new as a new student, back to school, they have to have a test taken beforehand to actually get the key to their dormitory. And then on the very first day they're here, we are going to give them a rapid test, which is an antigen test with high sensitivity and specificity, which has a 15-minute result. Everyone will get that. And as long as that's negative, they'll be able to move in to their normal rooms. We will give them a PCR, the more gold-standard test on the same day, day one, just to confirm. And then four days later, they'll get another PCR test. And once we're there, and we're bringing people in about 200, or a little bit more than that, a day doing this, once we're at the end of that and everyone has two on-campus, PCR negative tests, I think we'll be in a very good place. You know, that's, that's where you're kind of on your island and safer and you can relax a little bit. So that's what our strategy is.”
“Sure. Were there any changes to outdoor classrooms, kind of a combination? I know you've got the grab-and-go dining. I see that that is continuing. Any, any other changes just kind of on a daily basis?” asks Dunne.
“Well, unfortunately, we can't have tents anymore, because it's just too cold, and the precipitation, snow, ice. And we have a lot of classes in the tents. So now if you come onto campus, you just see the bare grass where the tents were,” says Bradley. “So we are going to be teaching in classrooms. We've changed our filters to be the Merv 13 filters in most of our academic buildings, so they're safer and safer. We will be teaching inside, but we also will be teaching remotely and just not at all in tents. So I think, you know, that's not that different. And I do expect by the time we get to late March, we'll probably be in tents again.”
“Yeah, no, I was, I wasn't thinking you would subject them to being in full… Dunne says.
“No,” says Bradley.
“…full gear, full outdoor gear to take their classes,” Dunne says.
“Definitely not. Our students became so robust. I mean, people at the end of November would be with their blankets and down coats, you know, hanging out knitting under a tent. It was really something last semester,” Bradley says.
“Human adaptability is quite something. And I love that you can schedule walks through the Nature Preserve there. So that's wonderful,” says Dunne.
“Yes, absolutely,” says Bradley.
“That is just such a good outlet and then a way to be safe and all of that. Any plans yet, is it too early to decide what's happening for graduation?” Dunne asks.
“Yeah, we have a group that's working on that intensively that actually involve students, administrators and faculty to get a sense of what are the most important parts,” says Bradley. “Just like everybody, we really would love to be able to do some small pieces of it in person, but we just don't know yet if that's safe enough, and, and ,you know which pieces, so we'll be working on that actively and eager to talk about it in a few more weeks.”
“I’m just wondering if, as you step back and look at what's occurred and what's transpiring now with the pandemic, you know, just, what are your takes on this? What are we learning? What are lessons learned?” asks Dunne. “What is, you know, what are you more concerned about? What are you happy with, etcetera?”
“Yeah, you know, I think one of the most important things we're learning is how to live in a community with interdependence and realizing that our actions really do affect other people's actions. And that's a really important life lesson for young adults, but, honestly, it's a really important life lesson for all of us. And at Vassar, as you know, we're trying to really, pour ground —we precedes me. So think of the other person when you act. We are a group together; we're not just individuals. And I'm so hopeful, and our students have done beautifully with that, as have our, our employees and faculty, and I'm so hopeful that that is a cultural norm that will stick after the pandemic because, you know, there's a lot of times we should be using those values in so much of what we do together as a campus and as a society. So that's something I feel really good about,” Bradley says. “I think the other thing that we've learned is people are just much more interested and literate in science, you know, you want to understand the science now. So I think there's a much better sense of, actually everybody should take a little bit of science, everybody should take a little public health, everybody should have some sense of what these kinds of infectious disease mean because this certainly is not the last one of these that we're going to have to endure. So I think that's another, it's a good outcome, it's an adapted outcome, a way in which we're adapting. I do think over time, I would really strive for having a stronger connection with our public health officials in a more systematic way to respond to public health crises, which, you know, recently read about the state trying to train new public health professionals quickly, I'm very excited about that because I think we've all been able to see that our medical and public health infrastructure, as good as it is, always could be shored up to help our society, I don't know, weather these kinds of storms better.”
“Anything else, President Bradley?” asks Dunne.
“Yeah, just a couple of things. Something that I have felt very proud of, and hopefully we'll continue, is that we have not really had any changes in our workforce, you know, we haven't had to lay people off. We have tried to stay as just an anchor institution that's solid. If you get a job here, you're going to have a job here. And I think that kind of ties in with our goals of we precedes me. And it really helps with morale,” Bradley says. “I mean, once we made that decision, and we publicized, look, we are going to get through this the best we can, we're going to do everything we can to keep every job alive here, people were ready to work, you know, they were committed. Okay, we're all here together, let's stay together. And that I think really has helped our morale, which it helps the morale of the employees, which then sort of trickles down to the students as well. So I've felt that that has really been just a nice thing to see. And I feel as if in the spring, even as the plans continue to be difficult, I think people will embrace them feeling that we're committed as a, I don't know, as an institution that will stay together.”