The grassy area known as Beury Beach on Temple University’s campus normally would be packed with students hanging out, listening to music, and soaking up the sun on the first day of classes
Instead, not many more than a handful were spread out in social distancing circles marked on the grass, just one step the university has taken to promote social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s kind of surreal, honestly,” said Lindsay Bowen, 21, a journalism major from Fort Washington, who sat with a friend at the foot of Temple’s iconic Bell Tower in the heart of campus.
With new protocols and safety procedures in place, classes began for nearly 39,000 students at Temple on Monday, even while opposition among some students and faculty continued to mount, and concern spread that the university was endangering its North Philadelphia community.
And even many of those who were excited to be on campus expressed hesitation.
“They seem like they have good safety protocols in place,” said Caroline George, 18, a freshman from Philadelphia, who sat at a table outside the student center looking over a syllabus for a chemistry lab. “I’m just not sure that will be enough.”
Making students more uneasy was the decision that many other local universities have moved all instruction online.
“Drexel, Penn, and La Salle are smart enough to close ... Why isn’t Temple?” said a sign held by a Temple instructor at one of two protests held on campus Monday.
But Temple, noting that more than 150 people, including university medical experts, participated in preparing its reopening plans, said it would hold to its course.
“We’re doing this because we are responding to our community,” said university spokesperson Ray Betzner. “Many of our students, especially our first-year students, told us they wanted to have an on-campus component if it could be done safely. We’ve also heard from faculty who are eager to get back on campus.”
Only about 9,000 students were expected to be on campus for opening day, down from the usual 27,000, the university said. Most of Temple’s classes will be held remotely or in a hybrid format, and those held in person will be conducted in classrooms with reduced capacity, the school said. Only about 3,300 classroom seats are available, down from the typical 15,000.
Fewer students also are living in campus housing, about 3,200, compared with the typical 5,000, Betzner said.
But the decreased density offered little comfort to some, who worried students’ return could cause a spike in infections.
“As we stand here today, we do so out of care for this university,” said Steve Newman, president of the Temple Association of University Professionals, the faculty union.
Newman said about 600 professors are teaching classes with an in-person component. He also said professors have been told they don’t have the authority to switch to remote instruction if a student in their class tests positive.
“Right now, we’re making everybody extra vulnerable, and we don’t have to,” said Temple professor Marc Lamont Hill, whose remarks were made via Zoom.
Hill talked about his own battle with the coronavirus and his recovery. He said he was lucky not to have suffered the worst of symptoms, but many people living in the community surrounding Temple may not be that lucky.
“They have to live here,” he said. “This is their home. We have an alternative. We can be online. So the fact that we are willing not to just make ourselves vulnerable, but the community we claim to love vulnerable, is disturbing.”
At an earlier demonstration, Gail Loney, a longtime community resident and block captain, also said she feared for the community’s health and expressed concern about students who attend parties and don’t wear masks.
“This is a death sentence for some people. This is no joke,” she said.
Student leaders are concerned, too. Temple’s student government association last week called on Temple to largely empty campus housing except for students who absolutely need it, and move all nonessential classes and activities to an online format.
Betzner said classes went well Monday except for the nationwide shutdown of the videoconferencing site Zoom, which caused some morning sessions to be delayed or canceled.
Temple earlier this month launched a website that will make public the number of cases currently on the campus. As of Monday, the site noted 10 cases among students, eight on campus and two off.
The university has been preparing the campus for the reopening for months. There is reduced seating in common spaces indoors and added outdoor tables. The campus has been reconfigured with touchless features on restroom faucets, signage directing people to follow safety protocols, and hand sanitizer stations. Elevator capacity also has been reduced, the university said, and new space in several buildings has been converted for classrooms.
Temple also has worked on ventilation systems to improve indoor air quality and has upgraded cleaning protocols. Dining facilities are offering grab-and-go meals, and the university plans to open a COVID-19 testing center in a storefront on the street level of Morgan Hall this week.
“I think the university has done the best it can do with the hand it was dealt,” said Carlos Orellana, 21, a senior from Bethlehem, Pa.
He said he has some classes with an in-person component.
“I’m OK with it as long as everyone maintains their distance and wears a mask,” he said.
Shannan Lowe, 21, a senior biology major from Coalport, Pa., was glad to be back on campus.
“It’s like a breath of fresh air, even though we have a mask on,” she said.
But she said Temple should move classes online and give its classroom space to local elementary and high schools.
“A lot of those kids rely on public schools to get food, for their education,” she said. “They need this space more than we do.”