August 10, 2020 9:00 PM
Carmen Twillie Ambar, President

Update to the Original Message (August 10)

Greetings Faculty, Staff, Students, and Parents,

The world of COVID-19 changes swiftly. On Friday, I recorded a video to update you on our campus health strategy, and to give you a bit more detail about what to expect on your testing day. Over the weekend, we learned from our testing partner that the demand for testing from hot spots across the South and in other parts of the country will adversely affect our testing schedule here in Oberlin. Today I filmed an introduction to the original video to include details on this new information. You’ll find both videos here:

The spread of this virus has forced our testing partner to make the moral choice of facilitating the tests of people who have symptoms and delaying the processing of samples from asymptomatic people, those without symptoms.

I can appreciate the difficulty of this choice, but there are ramifications for Oberlin. For us, it means rather than receiving our test results within 48 hours of the lab receiving them, we will not get our results for at least four days, and perhaps a few days more.

Our testing partner made us aware of this problem over the weekend. Since that time, our senior leadership team has been working to address it. After consultation today with our testing partner and the Lorain County Public Health Department, we believe we have devised reasonable adjustments to our testing program and the start of classes.

First, let me update you on our testing.

Our partner adhered to its promise that it would not take on more clients than it had capacity to handle. However, governmental entities, national pharmacies, and nursing homes (the other clients of our lab partner) are inundating the lab with tests from hot spots of symptomatic individuals.

The lab is in the process of hiring 50 more people to help address the resulting administrative backlog, and they believe there will be an impact in reducing their turnaround time from what is now four days or more, to the original 48 hours we expected.

But given the unpredictable nature of this pandemic, for the moment we cannot count on a consistent turnaround period of 48 hours from when the lab receives specimens from Oberlin.

As you likely know, this is a national problem. Many labs are experiencing far longer delays. We don’t expect to be in the situation that many states are in, where they can’t get testing at all, even for symptomatic individuals. Nor do we expect that the two-or-more week delays happening around the country will happen to us. But we are being somewhat impacted by the surges in other areas.

Here is what is gratifying, though. We have created our layered strategy to protect the health and safety of our campus. Remember that beyond the mask wearing, physical distancing, fewer students on campus, facilities modifications, and enhanced cleaning, and handwashing, we have three layers of testing.

Testing for symptomatic folks through Mercy, the ongoing surveillance testing that will happen once a week for 25 percent of our campus, and the initial testing of our entire campus at the beginning of each term.

We will feel this delay in Phase 1 of our testing during August more than the balance of the semester, when we will be using surveillance testing to track the virus’ spread.

So to compensate, we are going to ease into the fall semester. Students will be in semi-quarantine until we get their test results. This means we will allow students out of their rooms for limited periods, to get their grab-and-go food and have restricted exposure to campus until they receive their test results, while practicing all of our other health strategies along the way.

Dave Covell, Lorain County Public Health Commissioner, told me today that the most important thing for asymptomatic individuals is to wear their masks and maintain their distance from others.

We are also making an alteration to the beginning of our academic year to compensate for this testing change. Part of easing into the semester will mean that we will be fully remote on campus for all classes during the first week. Students on campus will stream classes from their dorm rooms; those who are off campus will remain there.

This is not the way any of us wanted to start the semester. But here is what I know. This is going to be a year where we have to become comfortable with responding, not reacting.

We knew the pandemic would require us to compensate for unforeseen pressures. Our ability to adjust is one of the strengths of our layered approach. Our goal is to respond strategically, rather than allow circumstances to force us to react.

And now, to my originally scheduled communication. Please know that I am looking forward to seeing you, in any way I can in the next few weeks.


Original Communication (August 9)

August 9, 2020

Greetings Faculty, Staff, Students, and Parents,

We are well into August and the beginning of what will be one of the most unique fall terms we will ever experience!

Proactive communication has been a critical element of our strategy for a successful year, and today I want to provide an update on our fall preparations and the beginning of our testing program.

If you were on our webinar with the Cleveland Clinic in late July, you heard Dr. James Young offer an independent analysis of our layered strategy to protect the health of our students, faculty, and staff. In response to a question, he said, “I’ve reviewed a number of colleges’ plans to reopen, and I think Oberlin’s is as good as any I have seen.”

As the nation goes through its own challenges to address the COVID-19 pandemic, I appreciate his evaluation. In my mind, we have put together a strategy that allows us to be proactive and responsive, rather than reactive. To me, that makes all the difference.

I will say more about that in a minute.

Let me refresh your memory on our strategy.

  • Daily monitoring. We have secured a daily digital tool called Full Measure to help us all monitor our status and ensure we are being diligent. All students, faculty, and staff will receive more information in the coming days on how to use this tool.

  • De-densification. Our de-densification strategies and facilities modification will help us maintain distancing in dining, our classrooms, and our residence halls. Plexiglas has been installed and improvements to HVAC systems have been implemented.

  • Physical distancing. The three-semester strategy means we will have fewer students on campus, making physical distancing easier to achieve.

  • Communications. I hope you have visited our ObieSafe website, as this communications tool will be important to our efforts to protect campus this year.

  • Community Agreement. The Community Agreement with our students represents the detailed information we all will need to adhere to this academic year.

  • Testing. Our testing strategy this semester will offer us more information than ever into COVID-19’s presence on campus.

  • Isolation and quarantine strategies. We are dedicating the hotel and a residence hall to house those who are positive for COVID-19 and those who have been exposed to it.

  • Contact tracing. We will be coordinating with Lorain County Public Health on this important aspect of reducing community spread.

  • Mask policy and washing of hands. Perhaps the most important barrier we can impose is to have everyone wear masks on campus. We also are posting signs all over campus reminding people to wash their hands and use sanitizer.

We created this layered strategy, which the Cleveland Clinic calls a “Swiss cheese approach,” for a reason: to help us slow the spread of COVID-19. After all, we live in a congregant setting and must address its realities.

We know that in the coming days and weeks, some of us will test positive. That is our reality.

We also know that if all of us are diligent, we will be able to call upon our strategy and activate the tools that will help us get through this.

We have a number of options this year if we need to take action to slow the spread of COVID-19. For instance, we can increase the use of remote classes for a defined period, close certain facilities we believe are contributing to community spread, and we can adjust the testing program.

The key here is that we have the ability to use data and science to help us respond to a given situation, not simply react to it with little information.

So let me talk about testing.

We initiated a soft launch last week and tested 50 people at the Williams Field House.

About 900 faculty and staff are being tested this week, the week of August 10.

More than 2,000 students will be scheduled and tested beginning with RAs and PALs on August 16, then international students and those living off campus. We will take about a week for testing and move-in of the remainder of our fall students, to maintain social distancing.

Later this month, you will receive an email to help you schedule your ongoing tests for the rest of the semester.

We have worked hard with our testing partner to get results as soon as possible.

Remember, even though our tests are more than 98 percent accurate, they only provide a glimpse in time. We will use the test results to guide our other decisions, to help us be proactive and responsive.

Students who test positive will be moved to the hotel, which is being dedicated for isolation purposes. They will be monitored and treated when necessary.

Faculty and staff who test positive will be asked to remain home and to contact their doctor.

Students who have come in contact with someone who was positive, after consultation with the Lorain County Health Department, may be moved to a residence hall being dedicated for quarantine purposes.

We are following health guidelines to determine when individuals can return to work or school. Those who test positive need to be in isolation for 10 days from when they experienced symptoms or from their test, go 24 hours without a fever and without taking fever-suppressing medication, and have overall improvements of symptoms.

From September through Thanksgiving, we will test 25 percent of the entire campus population each week. This means that each person will be tested once a month.

The day of your test:

A number of people have worked hard to implement the scheduling of our tests. Thanks to CIT for all their exceptional work!

It will be important for you to arrive at your scheduled time to help us all maintain physical distancing at the Williams Field House.

When you approach the Field House entrance, Mercy Health – Allen Hospital employees will take your temperature and ask you a series of questions required by the Centers for Disease Control.

If you have a fever, you will be asked to step aside for additional evaluation and may receive a separate, more rapid COVID test at Mercy. If you do not have a fever or other symptoms, you will enter the Field House.

Our ability to be responsive:

We are nearing the end of our preparations. Soon, we launch into the semester. We will continue to be transparent with the conditions on campus as we know them to be.

We will analyze data from testing, from our Full Measure tool, and from contact tracing to discern trends.

We will post aggregate test results on the ObieSafe website and in the ObieSafe Weekly email.

Last March, we closed the campus, and that was the right thing to do, based upon the information we had then. Today, we have far more information and tools to work with, including:

  • 65 isolation rooms in our hotel
  • Mitigation strategies such as the use of masks, temperature monitoring, and physical distancing
  • An aggressive testing strategy
  • An ability to move students to quarantine in a residence hall

Lorain County Public Health has assured us that positive test results will not be a reason for rash action. We need to analyze the data and information we have and take appropriate measures.

Above all, we need to take care of each other. We need to reinforce the Community Agreement with our students, and we need to adhere to its principles as faculty and staff and adopt the values it espouses.

We will continue to update you on the other layers of our health care strategy in the coming weeks. In the meantime, for more general information, please see our  ObieSafe website and be on the lookout for our email, ObieSafe Weekly.

Be safe, and I will see you in a few weeks.

Carmen Twillie Ambar
President