A few students stood in a socially distanced line inside the Ursinus College field house, waiting to get their weekly coronavirus test as required by the small liberal arts school in Montgomery County.
“I thought getting tested every week was going to be a hassle, but it’s actually not as bad as I thought,” Kayla Ruiz said Tuesday, after getting her throat swabbed by a worker in gown, mask, and shield. “It takes less than five minutes and the results are really worth it so that we all know just how safe everything is on campus.”
It was the third test Ruiz, 20, a junior from Bristol, had taken since arriving for the fall semester. Students also were required to get tested before they arrived.
Ursinus has adopted one of the most aggressive testing policies of area colleges as it tries to keep the virus off its campus, nestled in the 5,500-resident borough of Collegeville. All 1,180 students living on campus will be tested weekly through the semester, and faculty and staff on campus for at least four hours a week are getting tested every other week.
It’s costing the 1,500-student college, which runs on a $65 million budget, nearly a million dollars, said Mark Schneider, dean of the college.
“We can’t guarantee that things will always stay under control,” Schneider said. “But what we can guarantee is, with our weekly testing, we will always know the health situation on the campus. We will not be taken by surprise.”
Testing varies widely among universities. Some, such as Villanova, required students and staff to be tested before they arrived and they are beginning surveillance testing this week. Some schools, such as Swarthmore, will test students several times after they arrive and more if case counts warrant. Pennsylvania State University required students and staff coming from hot spots to be tested before returning and is testing about 1% of the system’s population weekly. Some schools aren’t testing unless students have symptoms.
“We understand the fear factor, and we just want to be able to allay some of those concerns,” said president Brock Blomberg, who donned a sequined face mask, a gift from the spouse of a faculty member.
Having just finished its third week with more than 400 freshmen on campus, Ursinus has had two positive tests, both in the first week. In the second week, it had none. (Results for week three are pending.)
With some colleges reporting hundreds of cases, students and staff found it cheer-worthy.
“We got an email, no new cases, and everyone was like yeah!” said Elliot Cetinski, 18, a freshman from Chappaqua, N.Y.
Students are scheduled for tests by appointment to avoid crowds; results come within 24 to 36 hours, Blomberg said.
This weekend, sophomores, juniors, and seniors will arrive, giving the campus another hurdle to clear in reopening.
The testing is one measure that Ursinus, which for years has thrived on close faculty-student interaction and classroom community-building, has taken to allow for as normal a semester as possible, one where most students are on campus and most instruction is face-to-face.
The school has erected eight tents, with plastic on two sides and mounted fans, for professors who want to teach outside. They identified large spaces, including the wrestling room and art museum, where classes could be held with proper social distance. They loaded the campus with protective gear and cleaning supplies and established a student and faculty health corps that is taking temperatures at building entrances and reminding people of safety rules.
“I just wanted to find a way that I could help,” said Ruiz, a health corps member.
To afford the additional safety measures, top administrators have taken pay cuts, and the college is holding off on retirement contributions this year, Blomberg said. The travel budget also has been reduced.
Inside professor Meghan Brodie’s class one morning, held at the campus’ performing arts theater, masked students sat in a circle on a large stage with high ceilings, their seats spaced apart.
“Every single student has brought a mask every day and wears them, and they have all been incredibly respectful of each other, their safety, and their well being,” Brodie said.
For the first 2½ weeks of the semester, all freshmen take the same course, called the Common Intellectual Experience. There are 30 sections with 16 students, only three of them being conducted online.
The course usually runs all semester. But because of the pandemic, Ursinus packed the learning into a few weeks. Classes meet three hours a day and explore Darwin and Plato and discuss their understanding of the world and how they should live in it. The intensive, condensed course schedule has worked so well that Ursinus may do it again, said Stephanie Mackler, professor of education and assistant dean of academic affairs.
“This might have been a happy accident,” she said. “The pandemic may have given us a new way of thinking about what we do that might last.”
Ben Little, 19, of Quakertown, was happy to be in a classroom again. All his classes this semester will be in person.
“I missed having that teacher interaction,” said Little, who wore a black face mask with a bear, the Ursinus mascot.
Cetinski said deep discussions like those taking place in Brodie’s class are better held in person.
“The fact that we get to see each other when we’re responding to sensitive topics makes such a big difference,” Cetinski said, “because the amount of empathy that is shown in person is much greater than if you were just between the screens.”
Underneath a classroom tent, Carlita Favero, a professor of biology and neuroscience, was wiping her desk with a Chlorox wipe and writing topics on her whiteboard. About 17% of classes are meeting outdoors, including hers.
“I prefer if I’m going to be face-to-face to be outside,” she said.
Residence halls will be at 80% capacity, with students living in single and double rooms. The school has made clear that serious violations of safety protocols will not be tolerated. About a dozen freshmen were sent home to study remotely for the rest of the semester after they had a dorm party.
“We don’t want this to be a coercive disciplinary measure,” Blomberg said as he sat inside the Schellhase Commons, a $10 million campus hub with bookstore, coffee shop, and admissions operations that opened this summer. “We just want to keep the campus safe.”
The college is asking students to limit travel and stay on campus as much as possible, Blomberg said. And the community is being asked to stay off.
“We totally understand that,” said Catherine Kernen, Collegeville borough council president and head of the Collegeville Economic Development Corporation.
She and Aidsand Wright-Riggins, borough mayor, said Ursinus’ transparency, communication with the community, and testing plan have been a comfort. The college over the years has built a strong relationship with the community, inviting residents in for movie nights, art shows, concerts, and other events, they said.
“We feel fortunate that the college is actually in our community,” Kernen said. “That relationship is a big part of the trust that’s happening here.”