It looked a bit dicey for St. Joseph’s University earlier this semester.
The school asked more than 100 members of a sorority to quarantine after several tested positive for the coronavirus. At one point in late September, the university had 59 active cases.
But the university, where about 1,700 students live on campus and three-quarters of classes for its 4,200 undergraduates have an in-person component, stayed its course. Active cases as of Friday had dropped to 19.
With less than four weeks left until Thanksgiving, president Mark C. Reed said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the university will make it without altering its operations, in large part because of the cooperation and help from students and staff.
But he’s not bragging about it.
“I don’t want us in any way to be perceived or portrayed as declaring victory of any kind,” Reed said. “This is not about winning or losing. This is not about an experiment. This is about supporting people, keeping people safe and healthy to the extent we can and managing our way through a pandemic that is going to be with us for the foreseeable future.”
Other local colleges that opened for in-person classes and on-campus living also are hoping they can make it to turkey day, despite rising case counts of the virus nationally and statewide. After Thanksgiving, most, including St. Joe’s, plan to switch to remote instruction for the rest of the semester.
“Things have gone better than expected,” said Mark Schneider, dean of Ursinus College in Montgomery County.
Ursinus, which has had 1,180 students living on campus for 11 weeks and a mix of in-person and online classes, has recorded 22 cases. In the last week, there were no new cases and only one active. Ursinus has one of the most aggressive virus testing programs of colleges in the region. It has tested all students weekly and faculty and staff — who are on campus for at least four hours a week — every other week.
“Regular testing with rapid turnaround has been a critical tool in keeping the campus healthy, allowing us to move quickly to isolate infected students,” Schneider said.
Other small campuses that test regularly to varying extents have reported few cases this semester, including five at Haverford College, eight at Bryn Mawr and seven at Rosemont. All have a large portion of students living on campus and some in-person classes. Swarthmore, which has more than 600 students living on campus, has had 21 cases, eight of them among students.
The schools had hoped their size and somewhat self-contained campuses would help them fend off the coronavirus. Unlike larger schools woven into the fabric of a city, they can close off their campuses to the public to some extent.
“This is where small really does work,” said Christyn Moran, a Rosemont spokesperson.
The schools credited faculty, staff and students for making it work.
Cheyney University in rural Chester and Delaware Counties has had no cases reported among its more than 600 students, the majority of whom take some in-person classes and about three-quarters of whom live on campus. Cheyney, a historically Black state university, however, does not test students for the virus. The Chester County Health Department also said in mid-October it was not aware of cases at Cheyney.
President Aaron A. Walton said Cheyney benefits from its location on 275 acres of rolling farmlands.
“We sit down in a valley and kind of control our environment," he said, noting visitors to campus are screened, as are students as they leave and enter dorms. “We’re kind of creating our own bubble.”
For larger universities, such as Villanova and Pennsylvania State University, it has been more of a challenge. Both have struggled with rising case counts and have issued stern warnings to students.
“Since that time, we have seen our cases dropping,” said Jonathan Gust, Villanova spokesperson. The university with about 6,500 undergraduates had 13 active cases last week. In early October, it had 97. It has had a total of 249 this semester. Penn State, which has had nearly 3,900 cases on its University Park campus with 40,000 undergraduates, had seen active cases drop in October, but recorded an uptick again in the last week and now has started football.
Looking to the spring, most schools are planning a similar approach. Many will start a little later to give students time between the holidays and returning, and many have canceled or shortened spring break.
And some colleges, including Drexel, that opted for online classes in the fall and students not living on campus plan to try an in-person approach, too. Drexel announced last week it would reopen student housing and offer some courses in-person, though most instruction will remain remote. The University of Pennsylvania also announced Friday it would allow more students to live on campus, though require them to be tested for the virus twice a week.
But college officials caution that plans can change quickly in a pandemic.
“One thing that COVID has taught all of us is never say never," said Reed, St. Joe’s president.
Testing quickly those who had symptoms or were exposed and contact tracing proved critical in lowering case counts, he said. When the university told Alpha Phi members to quarantine, the cluster was contained, he said.
Throughout the semester, St Joe’s has used no more than a quarter of its quarantine space. Total cases for the semester reached 249 Friday.
Students who tested positive mostly had no or mild symptoms, he said.
“God willing, that will remain the case for this semester and well into next and forever,” he said.