The Signal

Serving the College since 1885

Tuesday August 16th

An interview with President Foster: Living with Covid-19 in the spring

The Signal sat down with President Kathryn Foster and Vice President Sharon Blanton on Tuesday, Jan. 25 for a candid discussion about what the spring semester will look like.

By Ian Krietzberg
Editor-in-Chief

The Signal sat down with President Kathryn Foster and Vice President Sharon Blanton on Tuesday, Jan. 25 for a candid discussion about what the spring semester will look like. 

Returning To Campus

The last time The Signal interviewed President Foster — then about plans for a hybrid semester going into spring 2021, the country was approaching a total case count of 26 million and a death toll nearing 450,000.

Just about a year later, the CDC is reporting totals of more than 76 million cases of Covid-19, and a death toll that is approaching 900,000. Globally, more than 360 million cases of Covid-19 have been reported and the death toll is approaching 6 million, according to the World Health Organization. 

Even with vaccinations, boosters and a growing understanding of how this virus infects, the country and world are still in the grips of this pandemic. 

New Jersey has reported more than 50,000 cases in the last seven days and is tracking a positivity rate between 10 and 15 percent for the past seven days, as of Jan. 29, according to the CDC. Though this surge of omicron is peaking, infection rates are still significantly worse than they were during any other surge. 

Despite this — and besides the virtual start to the spring 2022 semester — this semester will operate largely in parallel to the almost-normalcy of fall 2021, President Kathryn Foster said, saying that high vaccination numbers, peaking omicron levels and the general preparedness of the College come together to justify the way in which the Spring semester will operate. 

“The difference between a year ago spring and today spring is in part that 97% of our campus community is vaccinated. That was a major decision factor in why did we treat this current circumstance differently than we did a year ago,” Foster said. “A year ago, the vaccine was in our imagination, this year it’s real. Secondly, we had already put into place and now had a regular testing procedure and protocol that students can follow for health and safety. And third, we have been encouraged by the fact that although the omicron variant is highly transmissible, it also tends to be more mild in terms of the way that people experience the virus.”

The reasoning behind starting virtually was to create time and space in bringing people back to campus, while also working to ease students back into the semester in a way that spreads out some potential “pressure points” in terms of aggravating Covid-19 levels. 

“We have a group that watches the numbers on a daily basis,” Vice President Sharon Blanton said. “We have the public dashboard that’s on the website; we also have other indicators that we keep track of on a daily basis. As soon as we see any of these things changing, we start looking at what levers can we adjust to continue to make the campus as safe as possible.”

Despite the looming optimism of the declining omicron surge and this first virtual week, the College is still anticipating a spike of cases in the coming days. 

“We don’t know exactly what we’ll get. The reason I said anticipate is because we know that when groups have come together, there has been that initial spike,” Foster said. “It happened last year. We’re just watching for that; we’re aware of that.”

And though other colleges have tracked outbreaks and spikes as students have arrived back for the spring semester, to Blanton, the College is in a “very, very different place from many other schools.”

“Some institutions have had outbreaks of 500 students; we’ve had spikes of like 10,” Blanton said. “I keep saying we should all treat each other like everyone around us has Covid. Be very conscious. If we all keep doing that, our numbers will continue to stay pretty low.”

The College is returning — albeit with restrictions — to campus for its spring 2022 semester (Kalli Colacino / Managing Editor).

The Booster

Brought to the forefront by the emergence of the omicron variant, the CDC has found that the efficacy of vaccination without a booster shot has waned severely over time. Boosted individuals have a more significant protection against serious illness than those who are vaccinated but not boosted. 

The College boasts a 97 percent vaccination rate, but, moving into the spring semester, it is not moving to make a booster shot required. It is, however, strongly recommended.

“We do strongly encourage the booster. We’re also well aware that some number of our community have already gotten the variant. And you can’t — or it’s not advised — to get the booster for 90 days,” Foster said. 

“Rather than go through the sort of ‘everybody’s on a different place in the calendar,’ we said everybody comes back, gets tested, we’ll understand what the landscape is of omicron on campus now and then we’ll say to people: ‘Look, you’re responsible adults here. You understand that if you have a booster, the chances of this variant harming you is reduced, so go make that decision,’” she added. 

The conversation surrounding possibly requiring a booster in the future, Foster says, has yet to happen. 

“When we get some stability here, my guess is that scientists and public health folks will begin to guide us and say, just like an annual flu vaccine, this is the one for the year,” Foster said. “We will watch very carefully to see is it going to be advised that henceforth, colleges should ask people to add this vaccine to their list of vaccines so we know that people living in communal circumstances can expect a level of safety and health.”

Masks

The College initially instated what, at the time, was a temporary mask mandate in August 2021 — that mandate, going into the spring semester, is still in place. And even with infection rates and numbers beginning to trend downward, Foster is not sure yet if the mandate is something that might be relaxed later in the semester. 

“I don’t know what the trend numbers will be. We’re looking at a number of metrics, and if we saw ourselves for example going from the red zone to the orange zone to the yellow zone to the green zone by April, we could very look at what are the relaxations we could do,” Foster said. “My fingers are crossed right now that this rapid decline we’re seeing in New Jersey will continue down and that we’ll be able to make some changes.”

“I can’t tell you,” she added, “but I can say that we would love to be able to start relaxing rules if possible and when it’s warranted.”

In Foster’s latest update to the campus community, it was recommended that students don KN95 or N95 masks when on campus, as per CDC suggestion. Though the College has worked to make surgical masks available to the community, it has not yet been able to do the same with KN95’s. 

“We’ve been providing the surgical masks since the beginning. We've got a distribution system set up so that departments can place orders and have them delivered to their offices. We also have them available in Brower,” Blanton said. “We anticipate doing the same thing with the KN95’s. We are ordering some. They'll be available by request through different departments. I think the major distribution point for students would be at the Brower Student Center.”

Because of the short lifetime of KN95 masks and the rise in counterfeit KN95 masks, the College’s approach to ordering large quantities of KN95 masks has been a careful one, Foster said. 

Testing and Quarantine

In her latest communication to the campus community, Foster made it clear that all members of the community must get a Covid-19 test through Bergen New Bridge within the first week of the semester, or by Feb. 4. 

“We made it an expectation that everyone would come back and within a week get tested so we could get this baseline,” Foster said. “We are asking everybody and expecting everybody will go get that test.”

Preparing for the possibility of a spike in cases at the conclusion of this week of mass-testing, Foster — citing limited quarantine space — reiterated the potential for on-campus students who test positive to leave campus in order to quarantine. 

“We have a number of beds we’ve set aside for isolation and quarantine. Some schools are asking people to quarantine in place,” Foster said. Quarantining in place, however, “is more possible if you’re a single. For example, if you’re in a single residence hall and you could quarantine yourself in that place. If you have a roommate, it’s a little different, right? Suddenly you’re in a different situation.”

“It will be circumstantial but it’s based largely on the number of spaces we have available to isolate and quarantine,” she said. 

The administration, in preparation for a potential surge, has outlined a number of ways they might respond to that hypothetical, though possible, situation, including reverting to grab-and-go meals, shifting dining hall protocol and reconsidering a stretch of time back in a hybrid classroom. 

“It’s always a set of trade-offs — we’re trying to create a semester here where students who really want to be back, faculty and staff who really want to be back, we can achieve that with some quality and yet at the same time have health and safety.”

The biggest mounting challenge of a surge of cases on campus, however, would be the required contact tracing that such a surge would necessitate. 

“One of the challenges is the concept of contact tracing, where people say ‘well, I tested positive so I have to contact or I have to let other people contact all of the folks I was close to,’” Foster said. “With a large number of people that is going to be overwhelming. That's going to be the hardest thing for us to do.”

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

“On balance we thought [last semester] went very well. We were very proud of the students, the faculty and the staff,” Foster said, in regards to how fall 2021 functioned as the first semester back fully in person after months of hybrid school. 

Foster recognized responsibility and compliance with safety rules and regulations that were “not ideal for everyone.”

“We saw a lot of people being quite resilient to the fact that, let’s say, some offices weren’t open in the same ways or they were doing something through Zoom as opposed to in a classroom,” she said. 

And until the omicron variant began surging in December, Foster said, the College was reporting stable numbers and low positivity rates. 

“In some ways, colleges and universities caught a little bit of a break by the fact that the worst of it has been in December and January when we weren’t together trying to make a college work, if you will, with residents and dining halls,” Foster said. “We had rules in place and I think whenever you have rules in place there is always then the extra step of compliance with rules and enforcing rules. So we did try to go through some growing pains on that but if you’re asking if I’m optimistic, it’s yes.”

“I think that our students have been fantastic and I think that they have, in large measure, been extremely responsive and extremely responsible to the regulations and the protocol that we put in place.”

For those who are found to be acting in non-compliance with masking or testing requirements, the administration has a “student conduct process that those students go through, and for employees, it gets referred to HR and we have a process,” Blanton said. 

Students or faculty who are aware of people violating the safety and health regulations are encouraged to report these instances for an investigation to covidcomply@tcnj.edu.

And in this environment where Covid-19 — despite vaccines, boosters and masks — retains a constant presence, it is the goal of the administration to ensure that education is not sacrificed for safety. 

“We continue to make improvements in the classrooms. And so it’s really helpful, especially when the faculty reaches out to us to let us know that there’s difficulty in a classroom,” Blanton said. “It would be our goal that every classroom would have at least that basic setup so that people could attend remotely. But again, it really depends on the faculty member and the subject matter.”

“We’re absolutely trying to do the best we can,” Foster said, “to be extremely mindful trying to maximize the opportunities for students to get a quality education in the context of as much, if you will, in-person as possible.”




Comments

This Week's Issue

Issuu Preview