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The Largest Private University In Ohio Could Be The Model For Learning In Person In The World Covid-19

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When the University of Dayton (UD) started its fall semester at the end of August, COVID-19 test results on campus revealed a positivity rate well above 40%. But by the time the students left for Thanksgiving break last week, they had reduced that rate to less than 1% – which is the target level epidemiologists set for control of an epidemic.

UD President Eric Spina credited the process the university put in place.

“We’re a university who kind of figured it out after a rough start and have been in a good place,” he told Newsweek. “But any infection can be challenging and can lead to negative outcomes. Ideally it would be a positivity rate of zero, but those are pretty hard to find.”

Premier Health starts a drive through coronavirus testing site at the University of Dayton on March 17, 2020. (Photo by Megan JELINGER / AFP) (Photo by MEGAN JELINGER/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by MEGAN JELINGER/AFP via Getty Images/Getty

“For us, it really was kind of the reverse of what’s happened in a lot of places,” he said. “Our most difficult situation, our highest positivity, occurred early, and then through the semester we put ourselves into a better situation, proactively through the work of students following protocols, leaning into who our university is, and through the good work of faculty and staff on campus, and then through partnerships with governmental agencies and private partners who have been helpful to us.”

There was one fatality linked to COVID-19 at the university. In October, an 18-year-old freshman became ill, and left campus to return home. While at home, he tested positive for COVID-19, and later died. Several other students were hospitalized over the course of the semester but recovered.

Planning for opening the campus to students for the fall semester began in early summer. The university convened 11 internal working groups consisting of administrators, faculty, staff, and students to address concerns and questions about the possibility of “going live” in August.

“Ultimately, the decision to bring the students back really relied upon the work of well more than a hundred people in these different working groups, our conversations with Public Health, and a lot of detail planning and consultation with medical experts,” Spina said.

But Spina told Newsweek that the university was receiving conflicting messages about reopening from the community during the planning process.

“In a typical day I would get communications from students and families saying ‘You better open up’ … and then the next hour I’d get another email or message that would say ‘Can you guarantee my child’s safety?'” Spina said. “Ultimately, we felt we needed to do what was right for our students and our community.”

Students arriving for the fall semester had to present documentation of a negative test within five days or undergo a nasal test. The university continues surveillance testing of 3%-5% of the student body every week, Spina said.

UD’s medical advisory panel is made up of doctors from nearby Miami Valley Hospital and its parent Premier Health, which processes the school’s tests. The university has been in continuous consultation with doctors form those healthcare organizations and Public Health-Dayton & Montgomery County.

Local health officials told Newsweek that they have agreed with most of the university’s decisions, and have worked with the school for months on attacking the virus’ spread.

“They engaged Public Health early on in the planning,” Jeffery A. Cooper, commissioner of Public Health-Dayton & Montgomery County, told Newsweek. “It doesn’t mean that all of the decisions were easy, or even that the university may have made decisions separate from what our guidance might have been, but we were at least collaborating in terms of all of their planning from the very beginning.”

Dr. Michael Dohn, medical director of Public Health-Dayton & Montgomery County, said that higher levels of testing, and testing of targeted populations and areas with potential exposures, are contributing to the rising infection rates.

As students returned for the beginning of the Fall semester, a late-August and September spike in positive results occurred, with 82% of all positive cases for the semester occurring in the 22-day period from August 20 to September 11, Spina said.

“Our spike was early,” he said. “We magnified it by being really aggressive with our testing, but the idea was to try contain and then stop it from being a really broad spread.”

The school then went to full remote instruction from August 24 to September 16 and embarked on contact tracing, resuming in-person classes only when the number of positive tests decreased.

Spina and other school administrators posted messages online and hosted Zoom meetings to inform, encourage and congratulate students on their efforts – and to issue warnings when necessary.

“We let the campus know, let the students know, that really we were at risk of having to send students home,” Spina said.

When another spike hit in October, Cooper sent a letter to parents and students expressing the gravity of the situation and emphasizing the need for safety protocols to be followed.

There have been no reports of large student parties on or near campus, but city officials have heard from residents about maskless people congregating without social distancing outside in the popular bar and restaurant scene near campus, Cooper said.

“Many of the locations in the Brown Street corridor that oftentimes University of Dayton students frequent, we received quite a few complaints from the community-at-large regarding noncompliance,” Cooper said. “And so a significant number of our environmental health staff spent time trying to educate businesses and work with them around actions they needed to take to make sure they were operating safely. It was a significant investment of our resources.”

UD, with an enrollment of 11,677 students and 2,940 faculty and staff, is the largest private university in Ohio, and is a Catholic institution. Campus Ministry limited attendance at Masses early in the fall semester, but then moved to virtual services, later reopening the chapel, but with no singing during services.

The university credits its students with adapting to the demands of best practices of facemask requirements, social distancing and limits on the size of gatherings with successfully bringing down the positivity rate within the university community.

Spina said that “shared institutional values” and the Marianist Catholic ideal of “commitment to community” – approximately half of the student body identifies as Catholic – helped bind students together in a collective effort to fight the spread of the virus.

“This notion of building community is taken very seriously by our students,” Spina said. “You could really see students looking to influence other students. And they started to push each other.”

Informal peer-to-peer efforts and a formal program of the Student Government Association led to an increase in compliance and to the decrease in the positivity rate and number of cases on campus, Spina said. He said it was the students’ commitment to make it work that allowed the semester to play out successfully.

Drew Moyer, a UD junior and a university Neighborhood Fellow, served on a summer working group’s housing and student life subcommittee focusing on students transitioning back to campus for the fall semester.

Moyer has also been instrumental in communicating with his fellow students about the necessity of complying with coronavirus safety protocols on his patrols of a student neighborhood of university-owned houses adjacent to campus.

He said his interactions with fellow students were productive, but at times he needed to remind them about the big picture.

“It really needed to be said, ‘We need to start thinking more about others and less about us,'” Moyer told Newsweek. “When we’re here on campus, we’re helping the community around us, not just the Dayton campus but the greater Dayton community and the Montgomery County community.”
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Before the Thanksgiving break, like many other U.S. colleges and universities, UD instructed students not to return to campus for the remainder of the semester, and since Monday classes have resumed using remote instruction.

“We had made the decision, simply because of the risk of pushing students all across the country and bringing them back, that we would end on-campus instruction, for the most part, with Thanksgiving,” Spina said, “and then the semester will conclude over the next couple of weeks with exams and virtual commencement and so on. That’ll all be done virtually.”

The university didn’t do exit testing for students leaving for Thanksgiving break because it was judged that tests and lab resources would be better used for the Dayton-area community. The school also didn’t want to give students a false sense of security when they were headed for home to spend the holiday with family members.

Although plans for the spring semester are fluid, the school will likely have arriving students undergo rapid testing upon arrival. If students test positive, they’ll go into isolation. For the first two weeks of the semester, classes will be online only, with in-person instruction commencing if the positivity rate allows.

The Dayton mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comments for this story.

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