On the evening of April 27, the Student Government Association (SGA) facilitated a town hall, featuring university President Dennis Assanis, Vice President for Student Life José-Luis Riera, and Director of Student Health Services Tim Dowling.
SGA intended for the discussion to focus on the university’s response to the pandemic and the “relationship between the pandemic and mental health.” The town hall panelists touched on several majors themes about the spring semester and upcoming fall semester:
The reduced spread of COVID-19 in recent weeks
Assanis noted in his opening remarks that health and safety is a top priority of the university, and that with the help of students who are acting responsibly, the university has been able to reduce the COVID-19 spread to a “very low prevalence right now.”
“Let’s not lose the focus over the next few weeks….” Assanis said. “We don’t want to risk losing the progress that we’ve made.”
Later, Dowling discussed this semester’s and this year’s COVID-19 numbers. He explained that surveillance testing has identified 1,000 asymptomatic cases over the year, helping to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the community. Dowling said that in the two days prior to the town hall, with 1,500 surveillance tests performed, only one test came back positive.
Riera also spoke to the reduced spread of COVID-19 in the community by mentioning that students are reporting violations of COVID-19 restrictions at high rates and holding each other accountable, with 90% of referrals about unlawful gatherings coming from the LiveSafe App.
Although COVID-19 numbers have been improving, one student-submitted question voiced concern about the fact that off-campus students are getting tested randomly, not on a regular basis.
Dowling said that the university chose to prioritize testing of on-campus students because the university only has a certain number of tests available, because on-campus students may be utilizing campus facilities more frequently and because the university has formed multiple partnerships with the state to provide numerous testing options in the local area. He said that the university and the community are doing a total of 8,000 tests per week on average.
“I am imploring you to get the vaccine,” Dowling said.
When asked about potential mandatory vaccinations for the fall, Dowling said that “nothing is off the table at this point.” He brought up that some people may not be able to get the vaccine for medical and religious reasons, but that this is further reason for those who can to do so.
Dowling said that the university is currently not offering any mass vaccination sites on campus because the university lacks the infrastructure and amount of vaccine doses to distribute it on a large scale. He brought up, however, that there have been multiple opportunities for students to get vaccinated, including the mass vaccination event held in Dover specifically for Delaware college students.
The panelists also mentioned how being fully vaccinated does and does not affect student behavior for the remainder of the semester. Fully vaccinated students are still required to abide by mandatory testing rules, contract tracing requirements and other health precautions like wearing a mask, staying socially distant and avoiding large gatherings.
Fully vaccinated students are not currently required to enter a 14-day quarantine if exposed to the virus. They are required to self-monitor their symptoms, however.
The challenges of student life in the past year and the attempt to restore campus rhythms
“I know how challenging this past year has been for all of our students …” Assanis said. “You’ve missed out on time and experiences that you can’t really get back.”
Riera said this semester, the university has been prioritizing the “restoration of campus rhythms” — which includes adding more opportunities for student involvement and for more utilization of campus resources.
In reaction to the decrease in positivity rates on campus, the university recently restored in-person dining in the dining halls.
Additionally, Riera said in the coming days there will be a change to the residential guest policy, which currently disallows students from bringing guests into the residence halls.
Riera also noted how this semester, there have been “expanded programming” opportunities for sports teams, registered student organizations and fraternities and sororities — allowing off-campus meetings, for instance.
Furthermore, Riera announced that more information about a “senior fling” will be released soon.
Assanis also explained plans for spring commencement — a series of ceremonies held in and livestreamed from Delaware Stadium, with each student allotted two guests. He also announced that a commencement ceremony will be held for last year’s Class of 2020 in Delaware Stadium.
“We want April and May to feel distinctly different than January, February and March on campus,” Riera said.
Despite the intention of this town hall to focus on mental health concerns, the panelists and student-submitted questions touched little on the subject.
Panelists mainly brought up the anticipated opening of the Wellbeing Center at Warner Hall in the fall and the current telehealth options at the Center for Counseling & Student Development. “We take your mental wellbeing very seriously,” Assanis said.
Looking toward more normalcy in the fall
Assanis reiterated his statement from last month’s town hall that the university is “planning a return to face-to-face classes in the fall,” both on the Newark campus and in the Associate in Arts program. Assanis noted that currently, 75% of classes will be face-to-face, with the chance that the percentage will increase as Centers for Disease Control guidelines change over the next few months.
Additionally, Assanis repeated the news that residence halls will operate at “designed capacity,” with other on-campus facilities like the dining halls, the Bob Carpenter Sports Center and student centers operating more fully. He also said that there will be a full athletic schedule in the fall.
Riera added that the university hopes to offer more “organic spaces” on campus in the fall — spaces where students can go in and out as they desire, as opposed to spaces that require reservations.
Riera also explained that some of the virtual platforms that the university has utilized during the pandemic will continue into the fall and beyond. With online platforms, he said they have discovered “more effective ways to communicate with students,” and that the university hopes to maintain what has worked in the past year. Going forward, this might mean more online classes offered in a given semester, Zoom options for academic advising and the continued utilization of telehealth.
With the caveat that “things can change quickly,” Assanis said he hopes that campus life will “feel a lot more normal.”
“We’re going to still want people to wear masks and stay distant if we can, but I think we’re going to be able to get people in at a much closer density,” Dowling said.