As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten the health and safety of communities across the globe, Brandeis welcomed students back to campus with a number of new protocols in place to prevent the spread of the virus and keep students and staff healthy. On Tuesday, Aug. 25, President Ron Liebowitz, along with other administrators, hosted a virtual check-in for students and their families in order to answer questions about the fall semester. “We are very confident about the plan we have put in place,” Liebowitz said.

Brandeis’ COVID-19 testing program is “at the core” of the University’s plan for the fall, according to Liebowitz. As Provost Lisa Lynch explained, students living on campus or commuting to campus multiple times a week will be tested twice-weekly, and everyone must fill out a “daily health assessment” each morning before coming to campus to check for symptoms of COVID-19. The testing process is simple, and results are returned within 24 to 36 hours, if not sooner, according to Lynch. The school’s high frequency testing, Lynch explained, will ensure that if a student were to test positive for COVID-19, they can quickly be isolated until testing negative, and their close contacts can be quarantined in case of infection.

The COVID-19 testing is overseen by the University’s medical director, Debra Poaster. Lynch explained that if a student tests positive, they will be placed in quarantine and then tested again to confirm that the case is not a false positive. Students in quarantine will continue to be tested regularly and their symptoms will be monitored. According to the COVID-19 Task Force Report, in order to be cleared after a negative test, a student must have had no fever for 72 hours, improved symptoms and it must be at least 10 days since they last showed symptoms. If a student never had symptoms of the virus but still tested positive, it must be at least 10 days since they were tested. That being said, it is up to the discretion of the medical director to decide to release a student from quarantine when they test negatively. Other schools don’t have the same level of testing frequency, Lynch said, explaining, “We set a much higher bar for our community, and I’m very pleased.”

Raymond Ou, the vice president of Student Affairs, spoke at the check-in about how the University will continue to care for students in quarantine by providing programming for them to stay engaged and active in the school community. “We want students to have a sense of belonging and some structure while they’re waiting for that test to come back,” he said. Ou explained that different virtual events are available for students to participate in, such as Netflix parties, bingo, yoga and workouts. “Not that we’re assuming the programming will replicate what we all want, which is in-person experiences,” he added, noting that while this situation may not be perfect, he does not want students in isolation to feel cut off from the community.

Ou recommended that students, as well as parents, connect with their Community Advisors and other mentors so that they have someone to reach out to with concerns. “We want to help,” he said. Ou has also been working with Director of Athletics Lauren Haynie to come up with new ideas for student mentoring, and hopes to implement new outreach programs later this semester. 

Mark Brimhall-Vargas, the chief diversity officer and vice president for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, added that the Gender and Sexuality Center and the Intercultural Center will be open on campus and are good resources for students as well. For various accessibility issues, Lynch suggested that families reach out to the Office of Academic Affairs or the Office of Student Services for accomodations, including campus transportation for mobility accommodations.

As for in-person activities on campus, Stewart Uretsky, the executive vice president for Finance and Administration, explained that only up to 10 students can gather in a group at a time. Despite the fact that Massachusetts state guidelines now allow for larger gatherings and don’t require testing, Brandeis is “taking a more conservative approach,” he said. “We believe that it’s a lynchpin to a safe semester with our campus.” Ou then emphasized the importance of wearing face masks, as well as getting flu vaccines, which will be available on campus within the next couple of weeks.

He added that the University is not allowing students to form “pods” or “bubbles” of classmates, or a small group which would travel together and take off their masks when around each other. “We actually explored … pods, and we do not feel that that’s a safe option for our students, and we stick to our decision. We feel that having bubbles gives a false sense of security,” Uretsky said. 

Lynch explained that classroom group sizes are larger than 10 students per group (capped at 28 students) because they have adequate room space and air circulation to maintain proper social distance. The library capacity has also been reduced to under 50%, allowing for no more than 380 people, she added.

Ou explained that on-campus students are not allowed to leave the greater Boston area, and that students should address the Student Affairs Office if they feel there is an emergency reason for them to return home. Though restrictive, Ou said that this rule is to “ensure that we minimize the amount of travel so that we minimize the potential for there to be infection back on campus.”

Brimhall-Vargas also addressed the issue of racism on campus, specifically pertaining to Asian and Asian-American students, in connection to the pandemic. He said that the University “named and addressed it immediately as racist” when such incidents occurred in the spring. Brimhall-Vargas told families to contact himself, the Office of Equal Opportunity or the Ombuds Office (an office that helps anyone on campus to resolve conflicts impartially and confidentially) to report racism, and to contact the Office of Public Safety in an emergency. “Our campus takes this very seriously,” he said.

Brandeis will be continuing to track and publish metrics of COVID-19 cases on campus, in the local area and in the state. This data, along with the observed compliance to regulations by students and staff, will help the administration decide if the University needs to “pivot” at any point and close the campus, Lynch explained. However, Lynch said, “we feel at the moment that we’re in a very good place.”