With more than 100 positive cases of the coronavirus, Temple University announced Sunday that it would shut down in-person classes for two weeks, similar to a move the University of Notre Dame made earlier this month after cases spiked there.
Temple also will join with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health in an intensive effort to test, contact-trace, and minimize further spread, President Richard M. Englert said in an email to the campus community Sunday. The health department is expected to conduct more than 300 tests on Temple’s campus Monday of students who were identified as having close contact with an infected person or are symptomatic, Temple spokesperson Ray Betzner said.
The cases appear to be linked to small social gatherings off campus, Englert said in his email. The city health department on Saturday warned students to avoid all social contact with people outside their homes or apartments.
“We are hopeful, of course, that we will be able to return to the full hybrid program in place at the start of the semester,” Englert said, “but any such decision will be driven by the data and public health guidance available at the time.”
The decision comes less than a week after classes started on the North Philadelphia campus. Last Monday, the first day of classes, Temple had just 10 cases. By Friday, cases had jumped to 58. Now, the university is at 103, Englert said, noting that the university had conducted more than 5,000 tests in the last two weeks.
None of the cases appear to be serious at this point, he said.
“Most of these students testing positive are asymptomatic; a small number have mild to moderate flu-like symptoms,” Englert said.
Temple becomes the second large university in Pennsylvania to shift course in the last week. With 119 cases, Bloomsburg University announced last week that it would revert to online classes. Other schools around the country have taken similar steps after recording hundreds of coronavirus cases, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which now has 1,025 cases.
Notre Dame, which has 570 cases, stopped in-person classes for two weeks, and the school said it would begin resuming them this week after cases started to drop.
Despite urging by faculty union leaders and the school’s student government association to keep almost all classes online, Temple moved forward with its plan and started the semester with a mix of in-person, hybrid and remote classes. But it was not business as usual. About 8,900 students were on campus for the first day of classes, about a third of the normal number for opening day. Temple enrolls about 39,000 students.
Both faculty union and student leaders said that Temple’s decision to revert to online classes was a step in the right direction but that a temporary pause isn’t enough.
“Shutting classes down for two weeks isn’t going to stop any of the off-campus behaviors that led to the uptick in cases in the first place,” said Quinn Litsinger, president of the Temple Student Government Association.
The university needs to keep classes online all semester and empty its student housing, except for students who need to be there because of housing issues or other challenges, he said.
Betzner said moving students out of residence halls isn’t under discussion at this time. He said not many cases are coming out of residence halls.
“I don’t think we’ve got a dozen cases from students in university housing,” he said.
The university’s dashboard notes that 99 of the 103 cases were among students on campus, but that just means that they were known to be in a Temple facility during the time they were infectious.
Litsinger, a junior political science major from Cherry Hill, said he is taking all his classes online. He was supposed to have one class in person but switched it.
“I wasn’t comfortable going into a class once a week,” he said.
The Temple Association of University Professionals, the faculty union, has been calling on the university for weeks to hold all classes online that aren’t absolutely required to be in person. Steve Newman, union president, applauded the decision to switch gears, but also said more action is needed.
“We hope the administration listens to its students, faculty and neighbors in North Philadelphia and follows what the science is telling them and extends this through the end of the semester,” he said.
The decision made for a long day of driving for Michael Lukasavage, 19, a freshman mechanical engineering major from Dallas in Northeastern Pennsylvania, and his mother. He had gone home on Thursday after catching a bad case of poison ivy, and he was on his way back to campus on Sunday when the message about online classes went out. He checked with his roommate, who didn’t intend to come back.
“I didn’t really want to sit alone in my room for two weeks, so I packed my stuff and left,” he said, as they were driving back to Dallas.
He had only one class in-person, he said. He hopes the school stays online for the rest of the semester and tries to reopen again for in person classes in the spring.
Temple drew harsh criticism from some for even starting in-person classes.
“You are literal criminals for opening in the first place,” tweeted the Temple University Coalition for Change.
Some are worried that the infection rates mounting on campus could endanger the surrounding community.
“STOP PUTTING NORTH PHILLY RESIDENTS IN HARM FOR ONCE IN LIFE,” a student wrote on social media. “this is so sad & stupid that im embarrassed this is gonna be my alma mater.”
James Garrow, a spokesperson for the city health department, said spread into the local community is a concern and “one of the reasons we are coming after this so hard and really working closely with Temple, because we want to stop that before it starts.”
The health department’s new guidance on social gatherings for college students also applies to other schools. While the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, La Salle and Chestnut Hill College all moved to largely remote instruction, St. Joseph’s University and Thomas Jefferson University also are still holding some in-person classes.
Under Temple’s plan announced Sunday, all classes will shift to a remote mode through at least Sept. 11. Only classes that are deemed essential by a dean will be held in person during the two weeks, the school said.
The university on Monday will launch a help line for those in the campus community with concerns, at 215-204-4400.
Staff writer Stephanie Farr contributed to this article.