By CATHERINE McLAUGHLIN, InDepthNH.org
PLYMOUTH – Plymouth State University officials explained their vision and safety procedures for the fall semester to alumni and town community members at a virtual town hall on Monday afternoon.
The panel, led by Vice President of Communications, Enrollment and Student Life Marlin Collingwood and President Dr. Donald Birx, stressed that they prioritized the safety not only of students living on- and off-campus but of commuters and the Plymouth town community as well.
“We really want to start the semester in a way to reduce risk to all populations,” Collingwood said.
Other panelists included Ann McClellan, Provost, Jeff Furlone, Dean of Students, Steve Temperino, Director of Public Safety/Chief of Police, Katie Caron, Director of Environmental Health & Safety, John Scheinman, Director of Development, and Kim Bownes, Director of Athletics.
The university will feature testing before, during, and after student arrival and throughout the semester as the keystone of its plan to protect against community spread of COVID-19 on campus and in the community.
Campus will be closed for the foreseeable future. This means that all buildings will be restricted to those with an active ID card, said Temperino, rather than a perimeter-like closing. Students who live downtown or commute will have full access to campus, but members of the public will not.
PSU’s Ice Arena, normally shared with many community groups and open for public skate periodically, will continue to be used as the Speare Hospital Alternative Care Site and will not be iced until at least mid-September.
All students, faculty, and staff will be tested before they arrive on campus, once they arrive on campus, and two weeks after classes commence. Testing will continue throughout the semester. Some students will be tested randomly, while others, such as athletes, active student clubs, and those who must regularly leave campus may be tested more regularly, Collingwood said.
Birx and Collingwood expressed optimism that the school’s in-state population at 52%, with approximately 1,000 of its near 4,300 student population coming from Plymouth and the North Country, would mean many students arriving on campus from much lower risk communities. Birx said he considered PSU, “One of the most protected universities in the country.”
Conversely, the only foreseeable obstacle to students returning to campus in the fall would be if state COVID-19 levels were to spike again, “like what is going on in Florida,” Birx said. Birx, whose sister Dr. Deborah Birx serves as the Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, noted he would be in communication with his sister about what might be ahead for New Hampshire.
The university has an arrangement with Quest Diagnostics to provide all testing. Test results will be reported to the state Department of Health and Human Services, the test subject, and school officials.
“We are trying to be as transparent as possible,” Collingwood said, but any publication of campus test data would run through state Department of Health and Human Services protocols.
Student arrival will be staggered beginning on Aug. 17 through the beginning of classes on Aug. 24, to ensure the influx of people in to the town of Plymouth on any given day will be limited. Students are “strongly encouraged” to remain in the greater Plymouth Area as much as possible throughout the semester, said Collingwood.
Students will have no time off, besides the state-holiday Veterans Day, until they return home at Thanksgiving. Like many schools, final exams will be administered remotely. Some exceptions to this schedule may include some students completing internships or practicums in the area, such as the university’s nursing students.
If a student should test positive, outbreak management will work through a clusters system. First, “families” of students – roommates or suitemates – will be quarantined and tested. If the virus spreads to other “families” on the floor of a residence hall, it will be locked down, with a similar procedure in place for entire residence halls.
If an outbreak spreads beyond a single residence hall, President Birx said, the campus would be locked down for a minimum of two weeks. The situation would then be evaluated on a bi-weekly basis, and, after a lockdown contained an outbreak, students would likely be sent home.
Testing, quarantine procedures, and contact tracing in conjunction with the state represents “a three-pronged approach,” Birx said.
The administration has held weekly meetings with town landlords to try and include students who live off campus in these protocols, as well as to update student protocols with consequences for safety violations for students who live off-campus. Town police have also been included in these conversations, particularly in developing a procedure for tracking, managing, and minimizing off-campus partying.
Another weekly appointment for the administration has been with Plymouth’s Board of Selectmen. Birx and Collingwood stressed that they support the proposed town mandate of masks indoors that has yet to be voted on. There will be no restrictions on students’ vehicles or employment.
All 2020 alumni events have been cancelled or moved online, Scheinman said. The university had hoped for in-person celebrations for the Class of 2020, both graduate and undergraduate, but that no longer is feasible, said Collingwood, and will be scheduled at a later time.
A virtual town hall tailored towards students and their families will take place on Wednesday July 22, at 10 a.m., and meetings with faculty later in the summer.