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Reopening Our Boston Campus

Dear members of the Emerson alumni community,

Over the past five months, Emerson staff, faculty, students, and leaders have been working around the clock, seven days a week, to prepare for the safe reopening of our Boston campus. I write today to share the details of that preparation with you.

I also write to acknowledge the concerns that some members of our alumni community have shared with me and other Emerson leaders regarding our decision to reopen. This letter will provide you with our rationale; a detailed description of our rigorous and data-driven health and safety protocols; and information on how to monitor what’s happening at Emerson by accessing Emerson’s COVID-19 testing results and other critical data, now available on our public dashboard.

When the College closed in March, our entire community was devastated, but we all rose to the occasion: faculty worked tirelessly to recreate their courses for the online environment, staff worked nonstop to put into place our health and safety programs, and students found new ways to collaborate with their professors and fellow students to finish the semester remotely.

Over the summer, faculty, student, and staff COVID-19 Working Groups spent weeks working to develop, evaluate, and recommend plans for the Fall 2020 term. The College set about creating a comprehensive plan to de-densify the campus; test and retest our community members; and forge a safe housing, classroom, and campus environment. Flex Learning, a hybrid in-person and online educational model, is our approach to serving the various and diverse needs of our students, faculty, and staff during these unprecedented times, while preserving our commitment to a robust and vibrant campus experience.

Our decision to reopen the College was made in consultation with medical and infectious disease experts, city and state officials, and with the deepest regard for the relevant science.

Below are some of the important protocols and developments you should know:

  • The College has partnered with the Broad Institute, a Harvard and MIT genomics research center, to provide COVID-19 testing for our students, faculty, and staff. Additionally, Tufts Medical Center administers, collects, and delivers the tests to the Broad Institute, which will provide same-day or next-day results to individuals and the College’s contact tracing team.
  • Emerson students were required 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. Residential students must take a test before they occupy their rooms at Emerson, and they will be in self-quarantine pending the receipt of confirmed negative results. If the test is positive, students are quarantined on campus for 14 days. Students take a second test three days later and at least weekly tests throughout the 12-week term. In order to enter any campus building, students must indicate a negative test and employ a symptom health checking app — both of which will be located on their mobile devices. All students are required to complete symptom checking daily.
  • Students living off campus must also take a nasal PCR baseline test for COVID-19, as well as a weekly test during the term. Like all other students, faculty, and staff, they must indicate a negative test and employ a symptom health checking app — both of which will be located on their mobile devices — in order to enter any campus building.
  • Employees of our vendors are also tested and must follow our health and safety protocols. Students, staff, and faculty who are working remotely may not enter the College premises without permission. College-sponsored student travel outside of Massachusetts is prohibited.
  • Several Boston-area colleges and universities, including Emerson, have contracted with hotels to house students so we can de-densify our residence halls, which is an important safety measure. Our on-campus housing occupancy has been reduced by 25 percent in order to de-densify our residence halls. Close to 200 Emerson students will live in the W Hotel, located near our campus, and they, too, will be required to observe the same testing and safety protocols as other campus residents. They will be supervised by several residential advisors. Each student lives in a single room, and there are firm restrictions on the number of people they may have in their room, just as there are restrictions on campus.
  • The College has worked hard to “flatten” our vertical campus, which is necessary to ensure appropriate social distancing. To that end, the College has created several new learning spaces on lower levels, minimizing the volume of elevator traffic, as well as opening more stairwells. In addition, we have reconfigured all of our classrooms, our dining hall, and other common spaces all over campus with seating plans, new instructor stations with safeguards, and new capacity rules to ensure safe social distancing.
  • All of our student Orientation Leaders, Resident Assistants, and Move-In Assistants have been participating in the testing program. They have been provided with face coverings and gloves, and have received training on public health requirements and practices.

These are the important data points, as of August 26, 2020:

Total tests performed: 3,075
Positives to date: 3
Positivity rate: 0.098%
Negatives to date: 3,007
Invalid results (TNP): 65 (2.11%)
Current quarantine on campus: 3
Current isolation on campus: 0

These data points will be updated twice per week on Emerson’s COVID-19 Dashboard.

Two individuals traveling from states outside of Massachusetts tested positive when they arrived to campus, and were immediately notified and isolated, per College protocol. Another individual tested positive August 1 and was sent home (locally) upon arrival to campus and quarantined at home for 14 days. In each case, we 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 two major takeaways from these positive tests 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 belief 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 these three cases, it is the response to a positive test that demonstrates how carefully planned safety programs can and do work, and how we managed to keep the virus out of our community and once identified, to contain it through quarantine.

I encourage you to review additional proactive safety measures and protocols detailed on our website, along with our recently launched public dashboard to track positive COVID-19 tests, positivity rates, and the number of community members in isolation or quarantine. These statistics, combined with guidance from public health officials and other community leaders, will help Emerson monitor the health of our community and guide decision making should we need to change course.

While there is much to learn about COVID-19, there is one indisputable known: The virus is transmitted by human behavior. Wearing face coverings, washing hands, wiping down surfaces, and social distancing drastically reduce the probability of transmission of the virus. Much of the success of our efforts at Emerson will depend on our community adhering to these safety precautions, on and off campus.

With regard to enforcement and accountability, our plans are based on trust in our community, as well as the understanding that the College will take seriously any behavior that is a violation of College policy, or that puts the community at risk. We have already responded to reports and taken appropriate action.

Generalities or misinformation shared on social media are difficult to address. However, we are steadfastly committed to the safety and health of every member of our community. It is our highest priority.

We will continue to evaluate and adjust our practices as new information becomes available. To receive continuous updates to your email inbox regarding our COVID-19 response, please subscribe to Emerson Today.

During this challenging time for all of us, a time that threatens much of what we hold dear and calls on each of us to navigate our lives and choices with precision and compassion for our neighbors like never before, I am profoundly grateful for the support of the Emerson alumni community. You so often demonstrate the best of what it means to be an Emersonian — unquenchable creativity and a spirit of resiliency that endures, no matter the challenge. Please join me with that spirit of resiliency, of support and unity with our students, faculty, staff, and fellow alumni, as we navigate this time together.

We are One Emerson.

Lee Pelton

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