While some colleges and universities across the state and country are struggling as positive COVID-19 cases are rising, that hasn’t been the case at Juniata College thus far in the semester.
However, that doesn’t mean college officials are letting down their guard. If anything, officials believe they have to keep even more vigilant to make sure it stays this way for the remainder of the sememster.
In total, as of Sept. 23, there have been a total of eight confirmed positive cases of COVID-19. This includes the three cases that were found when all students were tested upon arrival prior to the start of the semester, two non-students reported positive results but were not tested as part of the college’s surveillance testing program, and three more who tested positive as part of the college’s testing surveillance testing program. All positive results include students and non students.
Matthew Damschroder, dean of students at Juniata College, said the surveillance testing has allowed them to identify and isolate positive cases quickly, as the surveillance testing was only a part of the college’s strategy to bring students safely back to campus this semester.
“We were hopeful this would provide us with this kind of responsiveness,” he said, noting that other measures, such as mask wearing, social distancing and emphasizing the importance of good hygiene would also help.
“We continue to refine some of the decisions we’ve made to help the community know what they’re responsibilities are,” said Damschroder.
The students have taken these measures very seriously, added Damschroder.
“They have largely been very compliant,” he said. “They were willing to alter their behavior to adapt to the new reality. There’s a strong desire among students to be present on campus, and they’re willing to accept the limitations that change the nature of the experiences that students gain with an in-person learning environment.”
For those who may not follow the guidelines expected of them, Damschroder said it’s an opportunity to help them overcome any obstacles.
“There’s never a moment where everyone follows the rules 100%,” he said. “But, the benefit of a small campus community is that we know our students, and we’re able to reach out to them and sort of inquire about what’s going on and what the obstacle is to following a particular rule.
“Largely, people don’t intend to break the rules or create risk, as they may not pay attention to details, so it’s an opportunity to educate about the science of transmission and how this potential exists (of exponential rise in cases) if we let down our collective guard,” Damschroder. “Also, we are offering options, are students are able to learn remotely, which affords them personal freedoms. But, to be present in the community, it depends on one another for the collective well being. There’s an obligation to uphold these standards. So, we have that conversation with students if we find them out of alignment with the rules.”
Damschroder also discussed how Juniata is different from larger colleges and universities, which are struggling with rising COVID-19 cases.
“There are some things that are the same, like the basic mitigation strategies, and the attitudes that students bring in understanding that obligation,” he said. “But what’s different at Juniata is that we call on the character of students to take responsibility for themselves and those around them. Also, with a community of 45,000 (at Penn State University) as opposed to 1,200 students, it’s easier to see vulnerability to personalize potential consequences.”
One way is that all students, with the exception of commuters and those who live with families, are all residential, which is the vast majority of Juniata students.
“If a students chooses not to follow the rules, we can send them away,” he said. “A student population that largely lives off campus has more independence, and the college has little control over that. This gives us a different level of relationship to be able to sustain an in-person academic experience.”
But, while cases are low, Damschroder warns against letting the guard down, as things can change quickly.
“The temptation is there where people want to say it’s working, and we don’t have to work so hard, but the message I am sending is that it’s because we’re working so hard at it and we’re focused on the potential vulnerabilities that we can continue to be able to do well.”