There was hope mixed with uncertainty when Keene State College students returned to campus in late August. To the relief of the college community and its host city, the college has earned a strong midterm grade for its efforts to conduct on-campus learning safely during the pandemic, particularly for a smart pivot to increased testing implemented early in the semester.
Having the students back is of course important for the college, which considers its campus environment an essential component of the student learning and living experience it provides. It’s also important for Keene and its economy, even more so this year as its stores, restaurants and other businesses try to recover from the COVID-19 shutdown and cope with its ongoing limitations.
The college, led by President Melinda Treadwell, planned carefully and, it appears, thoroughly. The reopening plans it implemented addressed safety precautions for various aspects of campus activity, including limits on classroom and dorm capacity. Also imposed were meaningful requirements for student conduct both on and off campus, such as the wearing of masks in public spaces, physical distancing and avoiding social gatherings of more than 10 people, and the college has given these requirements spine by tying them to its code of conduct so that violations are subject to discipline.
But key to bringing the students back and keeping the campus open were plans Keene State made for a coronavirus testing program. All students, faculty and staff were required to test negative before returning to campus. Thereafter, the plan was to conduct 500 random weekly tests throughout the semester.
The early testing returned some positive results, but not in especially worrying numbers — seven during the pre-arrival period and four during the week ending Sept. 8. All those who tested positive in the early weeks, however, showed no symptoms of the virus, which pointed to increased risk of the virus spreading by asymptomatic individuals who might not be identified quickly enough by the random-testing plan.
As Treadwell, whose academic field of study is pharmacology and toxicology, told The Sentinel in a recent interview, “[l]ooking at the basic science, it, to me, would have been irresponsible to go to a randomized screening of the population.” As a result, Keene State changed course and has been aggressively testing its entire population weekly, with positive tests accounting for less than 0.06% of the 23,600 tests conducted since in-person classes began.
It was a smart move by Treadwell — how nice is it when a leader is guided by the science? — but as she noted, the virus is insidious, and the college cannot drop its guard. A stark reminder of that came last Friday when she announced that three student-athletes had tested positive and been moved into isolation and that contact tracing had identified 49 others who are now in 14-day quarantine for having been in close proximity with the three who tested positive. The college has also announced two other positive results in the past week.
Concerning, of course — particularly if last week’s results become a trend — but the extremely robust testing program appears thus far to be working in enabling Keene State to identify COVID cases and react swiftly to limit any spread. As Treadwell noted, the testing program “is how we’re maintaining hypervigilance, because staying open as a campus requires that.”
Last spring, amidst the planning for the fall semester, Treadwell told The Sentinel that Keene State’s planning mindset was “to manage with COVID rather than shelter from it.” The midterm results of that approach are encouraging, and that bodes well for both college and city for the rest of the semester.