Despite signs of a second wave of coronavirus in Pennsylvania and across the country this fall, Lancaster County colleges say they are keeping the virus contained.
College officials credit students for practicing safe behaviors like wearing masks and social distancing, as well as efforts to limit on-campus student populations and commuting to campus.
Franklin & Marshall College also attributes its low rates to its comprehensive testing plan, which includes testing every student every three weeks in addition to testing the wastewater from residence halls weekly.
“In the age group our students represent, many cases are asymptomatic, making it critical to have some sort of testing of students that goes beyond clinical testing of those representing symptoms,” said Alan Caniglia, F&M’s vice president for strategic initiatives, who is leading COVID-19 prevention efforts on campus.
Outside of Franklin & Marshall, no other Lancaster County college is routinely testing all students, whether or not they exhibit symptoms. Elizabethtown College tested all of its students living, learning or working on campus upon their arrival this fall. The college is now only testing students on a case-by-case basis. Millersville University did not conduct universal testing at any point this fall.
Without universal testing, are colleges confident in their COVID-19 numbers?
“I have complete faith in our numbers and our system,” said Duane Hagelgans, who teaches emergency management at Millersville and helps lead the university’s incident management team.
University officials went back and forth on testing but ultimately decided to test only those with symptoms or those who have come into contact with someone who tested positive.
Medical professionals do not recommend colleges test every student, Hagelgans said; that way, it doesn’t bog down COVID-19 testing operations from testing individuals with no symptoms.
Over the summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised against universal entry testing. Updated guidance released in early October does not prohibit universal testing, but it also does not encourage it. The CDC essentially leaves it up to each school.
‘Proper training and awareness’
While Millersville is testing symptomatic students and close contacts of those who have tested positive, and quarantining or isolating students when necessary, the college’s primary focus is on promoting responsible behaviors.
“Our biggest push continues to be proper training and awareness,” Hagelgans said.
A negative test is only good for a moment in time, he said. Hagelgans, a veteran firefighter with Lancaster city, Manor Township and Millersville, compared testing for COVID-19 to testing a fire alarm. A student can test negative, then go out and pick up the virus shortly after. A fire alarm, meanwhile, could be working now, then not work once a fire actually happens.
“It’s a catch 22,” he said.
Millersville is reporting two active student cases. It has reported 69 cumulative cases of COVID-19 since Aug. 12. Meanwhile, Bloomsburg University, one of Millersville’s sister schools with about 1,000 more students, had exceeded that total in late August. It’s now up to 362 total cases.
Most of Millersville’s classes are online. It reduced on-campus housing to one student per bedroom. Students are asked to wear face masks, practice social distancing and complete an online health screening every day.
Millersville is also tracking the density of each building on campus using internet devices and codes for each student to protect privacy. Hagelgans and others are alerted when there are too many people gathered in one room. The only time an alert went out was when they were testing the system.
“The students are stepping up and doing the right thing,” Hagelgans said.
At Franklin & Marshall, similar efforts related to promoting student behavior have been made.
The college is upholding a pledge all students were asked to sign promising they would follow health and safety protocols. There have been some cases in which students were disciplined for violating the pledge, but, mostly, students are behaving well.
“The students have been amazing,” Caniglia said. “They are the key to everything that has been successful.”
‘We have to be continually assessing the right information’
F&M has had 17 cumulative positive tests, plus two false positives. It currently is not reporting any active cases. As is the case at Millersville, any student who tests positive is expected to isolate, either on campus in isolation housing or at home. Students considered at risk quarantine – a less strict version of isolation.
F&M has done over 5,000 tests, plus weekly wastewater testing, Caniglia said. Students in a residence hall associated with a positive wastewater test may be asked to quarantine, depending on the amount of virus particles picked up.
The college partnered with Cambridge Innovation Center from Massachusetts to assist with testing students, Caniglia said. It posts arguably the most comprehensive COVID-19 data collection among Lancaster County colleges evaluating test results, number of students quarantining or isolating and more every week.
To Caniglia, testing asymptomatic students is vital to preventing outbreaks caused by asymptomatic students.
"Without the testing, they could be walking around and contagious with no knowledge, because they're not feeling (sick)," he said.
Caniglia, an economist by trade, said the college hired health consultants to help guide the college’s decision-making.
“I’ve learned a lot, and I’m still learning,” he said. “Because, as we go through this thing, we have to be continually assessing the right information.”
With the winter months coming up, it’s clear colleges are not out of the woods yet. Both Millersville and Franklin & Marshall will shift all students online prior to Thanksgiving to make it safer for students to travel over the holidays without worrying about bringing germs back to campus.
“We have four more weeks to go, and thanks to students … we’ve been able to keep our numbers low, and we’ve been able to keep the doors open,” Hagelgans said.
“Knock on wood.”