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One Emerson Update: Maintaining Health and Safety

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Dear members of the Emerson community,

As college and university students return to Boston, area institutions of higher learning like ours have been very busy for the past several months, developing thoughtful, science-based programs and protocols to ensure, as much as possible, that our teaching and learning environments are safe places for our students, faculty, and staff—as well as for our neighboring communities.

While many Boston institutions have designed different ways of re-opening and different modes of instruction, the safety and health of our respective communities are our utmost priority. This is understandably a time when anxieties are high.  Now, more than ever, however, we must balance our understandable unease with our responsibility to make decisions based on facts.

At Emerson, dozens of committed staff have been working around the clock over the past five months to re-populate our campus for the fall term. I am both proud and thankful for their steadfast dedication and perseverance.  I am also greatly appreciative of our faculty who are exploring new ways of teaching, who are taking Instructional Technology Group (ITG) workshops to explore new tools, and who are thoughtfully creating courses as part of our hybrid Flex Learning program.

As you may recall, the College has partnered with the Broad Institute, a Harvard and M.I.T. genomics research center, to provide COVID-19 testing for our students, faculty, and staff. Additionally, Tufts Medical Center will administer, collect, and deliver the tests to the Broad Institute, which will provide results to individuals and the College’s contact tracing team.  

Emerson students have been asked to self-quarantine and conduct daily symptom checks for 14 days prior to their return to Boston. All students must complete the Massachusetts Travel Form prior to arrival, unless they are from a lower-risk state designated by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

All students, faculty, and staff returning to campus must take a nasal PCR baseline test for COVID-19. Students will be required to take two tests the first week. After the initial test immediately upon their arrival, students will be in self-quarantine pending their receipt of confirmed negative results.

The College has developed a COVID dashboard, which will launch next week and be updated weekly. It will include, among other data points, the number of tests and any positive test results in a seven-day period. The College will also continue to send and post a narrative COVID update, at least weekly or as new information becomes available.

Positivity Rate

A critical data point that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts employs to monitor the presence of the virus is the positivity rate—a seven-day, weighted percentage of positive tests relative to all the tests taken.

There are about 140,000 undergraduate and graduate students in the Boston area. While not all of these students will return to Boston for in-person or online learning, the number of positive cases in the Boston area will increase when they arrive, due in large part to the significant increase in the number of new tests. Emerson and most, if not all, Boston colleges and universities will conduct multiple tests the initial arrival weeks, likely contributing to an increase in positive tests.

On Saturday, August 15, the College was notified of its first positive test case. As of this writing, out of the 576 tests conducted to date, there have been no other positive cases at Emerson (0.17% positivity rate). That individual, who traveled to Boston from another state, was tested at the Tufts Medical Center, afterwards contacted by Tufts, and then moved from self-quarantine into isolation per College policy. The College also immediately put into place our contact tracing protocol and notified all individuals who were within close contact, defined by the CDC as proximity within 6 feet or less, for a duration of 15 minutes or more. The individual is receiving care and support from the College and is doing well.

The two major takeaways from this event are: (1) our testing, contact tracing, and quarantine program worked exactly as it should have and (2) the safety of our community members was maintained. While it is unrealistic to believe that there will be no positive tests at Emerson during the fall term, it is our hope that our many safety measures will mitigate a precipitous rise in positive cases. A positive test does not indicate a failure or breakdown of safety protocols. Rather, as in this case, it is the response to a positive test that demonstrates how carefully planned safety programs can and do work.

While there may be some unknowns, there is one indisputable known: the virus is transmitted by human behavior. Wearing face coverings, washing hands, wiping down surfaces, and social distancing drastically reduces the probability of transmission of the virus.  Much of the success of our efforts at Emerson will depend on students adhering to these safety precautions on and off campus. I’m very pleased that our student life team has put into place a robust program to encourage safe student behavior, which includes students reinforcing those behaviors with their classmates.

As the College’s baseline and surveillance testing programs continue, we anticipate that more positive cases will be identified—but we are confident that the protocols we have put in place, as well as our community’s care for each other’s health and wellbeing, will produce excellent results.

Additional proactive safety measures include the following:

●      Daily symptom screening (via mobile app) required to enter campus facilities

●      Face coverings required to enter all campus facilities and classrooms

●      Detailed schedules for cleaning and sanitization (Clorox 360 machines)

●      Stockpile of protective equipment and supplies for employees and students

●      Instructions for staff, faculty, and students on how to safely return to campus: Return to Campus Guide (Students) and Return to Work Guide (Faculty and Staff)

●      Training programs for all employees and students on health and safety prior to arrival to campus based on the Return to Work and Return to Campus Guides 

○      COVID-19 online course, “Back to Emerson: What to Expect Fall 2020,” for students

○      Emerson Community Compact to reinforce adherence to safety measures on and off campus

●      Contact tracing program with more than 20 contact tracers identified on campus

●      Comprehensive staff de-densification plan (staff presence capped at ~15% of total)

●      Reconfiguration and de-densification of all campus facilities, including residence halls and classrooms:

○      Classroom location shifts to larger spaces with fewer students

○      Assigned seats/workstations for students in order to trace contacts of an infected classmate, if needed

○      Decreased faculty and student time in the classroom

○      Furniture removal for distancing

○      Prominent messaging/signage on health/safety measures

○      Enhanced environmental controls (hospital-grade ventilation system, protective barriers/plexiglass, face masks/face shields, hand sanitizing stations, hand sanitizing wipes)

○      Grab-and-go campus dining operations

●      Setup of dedicated quarantine and isolation spaces for students on campus

I look forward to the renewal of the academic year and to all that we will achieve together as One Emerson.

Lee Pelton

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