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Q&A with President Foster: mitigating Covid-19 spread, the future of campus life

The Signal interviewed President Kathryn Foster, Provost Jeffrey Osborn, Vice President for Operations Sharon Blanton and Vice President for Student Affairs Sean Stallings on Jan. 27 in a critical conversation on the College’s measures to prevent the transmission of Covid-19 as in-person activities resume in the Spring-Flex mode.

By Len La Rocca
Managing Editor

When President Foster announced the hybrid return to campus for the spring on Oct. 29, she described “two truisms: that we are near-certain to have cases of Covid-19 on campus in spring, and that we can minimize the number, spread and implications of these cases.” 

This message left many with a major question: why open the College if there is a risk of spreading Covid-19?

I anticipated that and tried to answer it in my welcome back message: ‘why would you open now rather than the fall, when the conditions then were at a lower magnitude than the Spring?’ And the answer, I said, was because we’re prepared now,” Foster said. 

“We have heard from many students and parents, and for that matter, members of the faculty and staff who said ‘it’s time to be back,’” Foster explained. “We have challenges. Whether it’s mental health challenges or educational issues, we really feel that we chose The College of New Jersey because it’s a place for in-person experience.”

The Spread So Far

As of Feb. 12, two weeks into the Spring-Flex plan, 28 on-campus students have tested positive for Covid-19 along with 24 off-campus students. This immediate spike is reminiscent of the 51 off-campus student cases reported early in the fall semester by contact tracing coordinator Rafia Saddiq on Sept. 10, 2020. 

Fall brought 175 Covid-19 cases despite the College holding 100% of classes remotely (tcnj.edu).

Foster’s first truism of impending cases has been actualized. The concept of students following safe health protocols, however, is in question following a Fall semester that incurred a total of 161 student cases despite being remote from campus. 

One can anticipate concern from those vested in the health of the College as students are now living on campus, attending in-person classes and being entrusted with public health in a pandemic. 

The first two weeks when we came back in the Fall, when we weren’t back but students were living off-campus, was probably during that era when we did not have all of our pieces together and students may not be used to it,” Foster said. “But I think the difference that four months makes is significant here. I think people understand now much more about the virus, understand the connection between their behavior and both their own potential incidence of getting the virus but also spreading it, so very different in those circumstances I would say.”

Student Isolation

As anticipated, the first week of the semester has brought Covid-19 into the community. 

Foster emphasizes for members of the College to influence each other to do the right thing in hopes that cases flatten upon proper protocols, Townhouse West isolation for students who test positive and close-contact isolation in New Residence Hall.

“Now would there be a bump at the beginning when people come back, there might very well be. That would not be unusual. We do have also, for those students living on campus, quarantine and isolation spaces that would immediately begin the process of separating folks so that they’re not infecting others,” Foster said.

Students who tested positive and their close contacts are currently living in their respective isolation rooms. According to Vice President of Student Affairs Sean Stallings, the order to isolate is firm and will be enforced for the health of the College.

The College has a total of 52 cases this spring as of Feb. 12 (tcnj.edu).

How strictly will it be enforced? “Very strictly,” Stallings said. “If we’re talking about an individual who has tested positive and is now in isolation and is found to be in violation of the expectations of isolation, meaning they left out of the room, that’s interpreted as that individual is putting other members’ safety at risk. That would be met with a very quick response from our residential staff and student conduct, and it could warrant asking that individual to be removed from housing.”

Though strict, the College has made accommodations for isolation to be reasonable. 

“We’ve made provisions for them so they’ll still be able to take their courses online and we have made provisions for food to be delivered, dining services will drop off food outside of their door. So there would be no reason for them to come out of their spaces other than they’re violating the expectations,” he continued. “They would only be able to leave for medical reasons. And surely we don’t want to put our staff in a situation to determine is this a fresh air walk or a medical situation, so if someone has a medical appointment and they’re going to student health services, fine, but if it’s oh they’re just taking a walk they wanted to stretch their legs out, then no, we don’t want to put our staff in the middle of trying to interpret what that was.” 

Potential Campus Shutdown

Despite efforts to weather the storm and get back to regular life, Covid-19 has taught the world that nothing is certain. The possibility of another complete shutdown is on the minds of many as the pandemic is still ongoing.

“Is there a time that the whole campus could be shut down? Theoretically yes. Obviously, if the state shuts us down we would have to remove everyone from campus,” Foster said. “But our expectation and our approach to the spring is that we will just continue to say that we have to pull back on things rather than close down the campus.”

Foster described these potential pullbacks in terms of hypothetical zones that coordinate with levels of restriction. 

“You might say we’re in a green zone now (Jan. 27), for example, so here are certain things that we can do in a green zone because the indicators are generally suggesting that there’s not too much contagion happening. The behaviors are really respecting the rules, so you might be in a certain zone. But then if things start getting worse, whether they’re getting worse in Ewing, or we’re running out of quarantine space or we’re seeing rapid incidences of contagion, then we might say we’re going to move to a yellow zone,” she said. “Maybe we’ll grab and go meals for a week or maybe we’ll go all online for a week or two, or maybe we’ll pull back on some of the indoor gatherings.”

Vaccination and the Future

In a Jan. 14 email, Director of Student Health Services Janice Vermeychuk informed the community that “TCNJ Student Health Services is enrolled as a CDC COVID-19 Vaccine Program Provider and we hope to receive vaccine in Phase 1C.”

Foster elaborated, however, that this is not a sure thing, nor a method for students of the College to streamline their access to the vaccine.

“We have applied, so have a number of other colleges and universities. Let’s say we’re selected as a vaccination site — it still goes through the rules of the state of New Jersey for who is in line and how that would be,” Foster explained. “So for example, it could mean that we have members of the community of Ewing coming into the vaccination site or other places around.”

Though living in group housing, students on campus are at a greater risk of contracting Covid-19 amid shared spaces like classrooms, showers and dining halls. 

“That said, there’s a lot of people lobbying for the recognition that students living on campus maybe could be moved up in the line,” Foster said. “It would be great if we could get any students who are living in group quarters to get that vaccination because the goal of the state is to get that vaccination into the arms of as many people as it can as quickly as it can.”

While not out of the woods yet, Gov. Murphy’s mission to vaccinate 70% of adults is a good sign for the future of New Jersey.

In hopes for a better future, the question is obvious: could the College return to normal, in-person life in the fall 2021 semester? “Yes,” Foster answered without hesitation.

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