After a three-week delay designed to wait out the recent coronavirus surge, classes at Keene State College are set to resume Monday, with the majority of students returning to town this weekend.
And as the college heads into the spring, it will be able to detect COVID-19 cases in students and staff faster than in the fall, thanks to a new testing partnership with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
“This is like a game changer for us, being able to get these results” sooner, said Jennifer Ferrell, Keene State’s associate vice president for student engagement. “ ... So that helps us, then, be able to either quarantine or isolate anyone who we might pick up in the testing much quicker, instead of some of the delayed testing that we had previously.”
The Cambridge, Mass.-based institute promises results within 36 hours. Last semester, Quest Diagnostics could provide results within two to three days, though that time frame grew to as many as six days later in the semester, when demand for testing increased throughout the region and nationwide, Ferrell said.
Ferrell also said Wednesday that pushing back the start of the spring semester has turned out to be a good move for the college.
“Things are starting to decline,” she said of COVID-19 activity in the area. “And we do feel confident that, with the current trends, we can absolutely return students safely, and that it was the right decision for us to do that.”
In addition to timing Keene State’s reopening after the peak in local COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, Ferrell said the delay has given school leaders a chance to finalize plans for the spring semester and stagger the pre-arrival testing and return of employees and students.
Thus far, pre-arrival testing has found 25 coronavirus cases — 20 among students and five employee infections — since Jan. 4, according to Keene State’s online COVID-19 dashboard, which was updated Wednesday. The majority of these cases were detected during drive-up tests, so infected people never left their cars on campus and have returned home to isolate, Ferrell said. The number doesn’t come as a surprise to college officials, she added.
“I don’t think there was any way around us having some positives, and I think we did anticipate that,” Ferrell said. “So I don’t think it’s a surprise. I think we were also prepared for that.”
Staff and students who live off campus have been getting their pre-arrival tests and checking in for the new semester since mid-January, in a process that has continued through this week.
“If our off-campus students were around and already in Keene, or returning early to their apartments and homes and things like that ... we wanted to offer them the opportunity to get into the testing pool much sooner,” Ferrell said. “So, they didn’t need to wait to have a pre-arrival [test] this week and do their check-in this weekend if they had already been in Keene.”
Students who live on campus took drive-up COVID-19 tests at Keene State last weekend and are scheduled to check into their dorms this Sunday. For anyone unable to drive to campus for their pre-arrival tests, Keene State also offered mail-in test kits that students conducted themselves last Friday and sent to Quest Diagnostics for results this week.
The college provided students with detailed instructions on how to conduct these tests at home and also hosted Zoom sessions to walk them through the process of collecting and shipping their samples. Ferrell said 521 students opted for the mail-in tests, while the rest of Keene State’s roughly 3,200 students and 700 employees have come to campus to be tested.
Regardless of how they are tested before returning, all students and staff need to present proof of a negative test result at check-in, when they will be tested again. Anyone who tests positive in Keene State’s pre-arrival screening will need to complete a two-week isolation period before returning to campus, Ferrell said. Some isolation and quarantine spaces are available on campus, too, depending on individual circumstances.
Students at the area’s other residential college, Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, were also required to present proof of a negative coronavirus test taken within a week of their return to campus about two weeks ago. Since then, more than a dozen COVID-19 cases have been reported there, though Franklin Pierce is conducting about twice as many random weekly tests as it did in the fall.
Over the course of the first semester, Keene State conducted more than 40,000 COVID-19 tests, finding a total of 78 cases of the viral respiratory illness. Weekly testing for all students and employees will continue throughout the spring, and some groups, like student athletes, will be tested up to three times a week.
The process for this surveillance testing will remain the same as in the fall, Ferrell said. Each Thursday and Friday, all students and employees are assigned a time slot to come through Spaulding Gymnasium, where representatives from Stewart’s Ambulance Service collect samples by taking nasal swabs, which will be sent to the Broad Institute for analysis.
After getting tested each week, all students and employees receive a wristband, which is a different color each week. No one is allowed in any buildings on campus unless wearing the correctly colored wristband.
Along with this weekly mass testing, Keene State will continue all of the coronavirus mitigation protocols implemented in the fall, including a mask requirement on campus, physical distancing in classrooms and other shared spaces and a limit on the size of gatherings.
“One of our biggest lessons is that a lot of what we were already doing in the fall was working well and was successful for us,” Ferrell said.
Keene State students have the option to take four different types of classes in the spring semester: in-person, online, hybrid and blended. Hybrid classes offer a mix of in-person and online learning, with groups of students rotating days they receive in-person instruction. Blended courses feature in-class teaching, along with online components that can be completed anytime outside of class.
Keene State will not have a spring break, primarily to limit potential coronavirus exposure through travel, so classes will continue uninterrupted through May 21. Students will get a reading day on Monday, May 24, before final exams, which will conclude on May 28.
Keene State is moving forward with plans to hold some form of an in-person commencement ceremony on May 29, Ferrell said, though it’s too early to know exactly what graduation will look like this year.