More fall details shared in town hall as semester nears

There's no way to overstate how enormous of a job it has been to prepare for resuming in-person instruction and on-campus living as safely as possible this fall, President Wendy Wintersteen told employees last week during a virtual town hall.

"Iowa State's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including our planning and preparations for the fall semester, is the most massive and multipronged and complex undertaking in university history," she said. 

Wintersteen thanked employees for their contributions to the effort at the start of the July 30 town hall, the fourth online forum for faculty and staff since the COVID-19 pandemic began. During the 90-minute session, a half-hour longer than the prior town halls, senior leaders outlined new specifics about the university's fall plans. Here are some highlights. 

No 'line in the sand'

Iowa State begins the semester at medium density. Classrooms, residence halls and other facilities are in use, but many courses and services will be online and classroom capacities are limited to 50%. There are no specific statistical thresholds that would trigger a change in those plans, said vice president for extension and outreach John Lawrence, chair of the fall planning committee. There's no "line in the sand," he said. 

While campuswide action is possible, the goal is to pinpoint areas to intervene and stop disease spread. Plans for different types of university units are being developed with customized indicators and responses, said Kristen Obbink, public health coordinator.  

"We'll make all attempts to mitigate anything we can at the local level so that we can have the biggest impact on public health and the least amount of impact on our university operations as a whole," she said.   

Indicators under consideration that could drive decision-making on the local or university levels include availability of quarantine and isolation space for students, cases per instructor or building, and the increasing rate of cases. 

Scope of testing

With the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory processing COVID-19 tests within 24 hours, the university will receive results faster than many health providers. That's an important advantage as about 9,000 students living in university housing are tested while moving in, a process stretched over two weeks to thin crowds and promote physical distancing.    

Testing after the move-in period will focus on individuals who have coronavirus symptoms or a known exposure to someone who tested positive. Students, faculty and staff can receive free testing at the Thielen Student Health Center. Employees should fill out an assessment to seek a test at the student health center. They also are asked to report third-party positive tests. Symptom checker software also will help identify people who should be tested.  

More expansive testing options were considered, but the availability of testing supplies and the logistics of test collection are constraints, said interim senior vice president for student affairs Erin Baldwin, who also is director of the Thielen Student Health Center.    

"We're going to continue to evolve our testing strategy as the supply chain opens up," she said. 

University leaders are supportive of city and county officials’ efforts to urge the state to establish a Test Iowa site in Ames, allowing free tests for people without symptoms or known exposures. 

Sharing information

Those who have a confirmed case of coronavirus will remain anonymous, but some information about testing will be shared. 

Current plans call for posting online a weekly update on tests conducted and positive cases confirmed, numbers that will be included in Story County’s overall statistics. When a student tests positive, classmates who were in close proximity, instructors and department chairs will be notified by email. Supervisors will be notified if an employee tests positive. Custodial teams will be informed about facilities that need cleaning following a positive test.

Case management investigators will interview people who test positive to compile a list of close contacts for tracing and to provide isolation guidance. The public health team Obbink is leading, which includes 50 university employees trained as contact tracers, will work to notify people who were, for 15 minutes or more, within 6 feet of the person who tested positive. People who were exposed will be asked to quarantine and the case management team will check with them daily.

An Aug. 4 memo from the public health team and the academic continuity working group outlines how the process will work when a student tests positive. Cooperating with contact tracing and following quarantine and isolation guidance will be essential. 

"Our strategy is really centered around identifying and quickly isolating cases on campus," Baldwin said.

Coverings are key

The Cyclones Care campaign provides widespread coordinated messaging supporting staying home when sick, as well as keeping 6 feet from others, washing your hands often and wearing a face covering. 

Asymptomatic cases heighten the impact of wearing face coverings, as they help slow disease spread by people who don't have symptoms, Lawrence said. With few exceptions, cloth face coverings must be worn inside university buildings and outside on campus when in the presence of others, a policy updated Aug. 5.

Though classroom density will be reduced, 6 feet of distance between each student won't be available in most rooms. The combination of lower capacity and face coverings allows for in-person classes in 64 general university classrooms that can hold more than 30 students, Lawrence said. At the density needed for 6-foot distancing, only 14 general classrooms of that size would have been available.

Also, some facilities lack forced-air heating and cooling, making face coverings especially essential. In 14 campus buildings -- Gilman, Coover, East and Science halls, among others -- there are areas without forced-air ventilation. No fall courses were scheduled in general university classrooms in affected sections of those buildings, and department and unit leaders were notified, Lawrence said. The areas are safe to work in with proper distancing and with occupants wearing face coverings, he said. Smaller classrooms out of service due to capacity limits could serve as temporary office spaces in some situations.

The university is providing up to two face coverings to every student and employee. Students who live on campus will begin receiving face coverings during the move-in process. Plans are underway to distribute more student face coverings on central campus at the start of the semester.

"Last fall we were handing out apples and bananas. This fall, we envision handing out face coverings," Lawrence said.