COVID-19 Update: This Next Chapter of Our Journey Together
Jan. 28, 2021
Dear Saint Louis University students,
More than 10 months ago we hit pause on our in-person coursework and undertook what felt like an impossible task of moving to remote learning for all courses. We came a long way from that moment as we began the fall with roughly 75 percent of all courses meeting in-person full- or part-time.
But back in March of 2020, I committed a series of things to you, including the utmost transparency when decisions were made. As we start this new semester –– and a new journey –– together, I want to recommit to transparency by sharing a few reflections on the fall and some hopes for the spring.
Reflections on the Fall Semester
We have been hard at work analyzing data, identifying patterns and learning important lessons from the fall semester. We begin this new term under pandemic conditions, smarter and better prepared, but realizing that it is going to be challenging and things we never anticipated are bound to occur.
But before I dive in, I want to reemphasize that the vast majority of our students were diligent with public health safeguards, and worked with us to ensure that we successfully completed the semester together. That said, it is important to note the surge of COVID-19 cases we saw after Halloween. Particularly since there are so many typically-social holidays ahead of us in the next few months.
Here’s what we learned:
- Over the course of the fall semester, 495 of our 11,700 students tested positive for COVID-19. Our overall positivity rate was 4.2 percent.
- The average number of close contacts per positive student jumped from about 1-3 prior to Halloween to 10-12 after Halloween.
- Extensive contact tracing indicates much of the surge in cases we saw during the first few weeks of November were tied to social gatherings and parties during a student-created, four-day fall break and Halloween, not to increased community spread in our region.
- Hosting and attending parties, and other reports of non-compliance with our community health expectations, resulted in 473 referrals to the Office of Student Responsibility and Community Standards for investigation. Sanctions for these violations were determined by several factors and informed by the unique context surrounding each allegation. Sanctions included, but were not limited to educational workshops with public health officials, restriction and/or revocation of campus housing, and suspension or removal from the University community.
Four Important Lessons from the Fall
- Lesson No. 1: Our safeguards worked. Masks and social distancing made a huge difference in our
ability to make it to Thanksgiving together. How do we know this? There were no cases
of disease transmission tied to a classroom, lab or non-clinical workplace –– all
places where these safeguards are mandatory. Similarly, our Contact Tracing team’s
investigatory work with each COVID-19 case indicates that close contacts who also
tested positive were unmasked and not following those protocols. When the protocols
were honored, they worked. Masks and social distancing will continue to be critical
safeguards for the spring semester. This will be true even when significant numbers
of students, staff, and faculty have been vaccinated.
- Lesson No. 2: Being OneSLU (i.e., people who are for and with others and who put the greater good
of our campus ahead of their own individual desires) is how we got to Thanksgiving
in person. I cannot thank you enough. Truly.
- Lesson No. 3: There is no magical equation for what would lead us to switch to completely online
instruction, but we came very close in November. A mixture of overtaxing our isolation
and quarantine housing (we went from two properties to five in just a few days), the
number of close contacts per COVID-19 case went from 1-3 to 10-12 ,and large portions
of residence hall floors needed to quarantine.
With the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter and so many other holidays and events that typically lead to social gatherings happening in the spring, we cannot let our guard down. If we do, we will be forced to make difficult decisions. Limiting building-to-building contact for on-campus students, moving more courses online and sending everyone home are all levers we do not want to pull. Please work with us to ensure this does not happen.
- Lesson No. 4: You, our students, need to be in community together. It was reinforced over and over again during the fall. Billikens are social, empathetic people. I get it. I relate. We are working on some ways to increase community. This includes allowing more student development or student-facing staff to work on campus and finding creative, safe ways students can be together. Stay tuned for more information and guidance from the Vice President for Student Development.
A Quick Note About the COVID-19 Vaccine
You are as eager as we are about the COVID-19 vaccine. We love the enthusiasm.
We still do not know when SLU will receive the COVID-19 vaccine. What I can tell you is that we are working hard to develop policies and procedures around what we will do when that day comes. Your continued patience is appreciated.
In the meantime, if you fit one of the already activated tiers, you may register for vaccination with your local health department and through a local hospital system, if one is available to you.
Those who have already received one or both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine should let us know by uploading that information into this Google Form. Reporting on your COVID-19 vaccination status is optional but appreciated. We are trying to gauge what percentage of our community is vaccinated.
The reality of OneSLU has been on display in a big way since COVID-19 came into our lives. You have dedicated your time, resources, and energy to do much for the greater good.
This virus might make it difficult for us to be together as much, and as directly, as we would like, but it can never really keep us apart.
Thank you for your contributions to our shared mission and vision.
Higher purpose. Greater Good.
Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D.