College Students Around the Main Line Adjust to School Amid COVID

Photos by Tessa Marie Images

Colleges and universities in the Philadelphia area navigate vaccine mandates, in-person learning and the potential of another outbreak.

Anna Jankowski has yet to have a normal year of college at Villanova University. When COVID-19 closed campus in the spring semester of her freshman year, Jankowski returned home to Baltimore. In the fall of 2020, almost all of her sophomore classes were virtual. “I’m so ridiculously hopeful that this year will be something close to normal,” says Jankowski of her junior year.

This fall, area colleges and universities anticipate a near-complete return to pre-pandemic form. West Chester University spent all of the 2020–21 academic year in remote-learning mode, with just a trickle of students on campus. Now, nearly 18,000 students are returning.

back to college at west chester
Fifth-year West Chester University student Molly Scollo is looking forward to a renewed sense of school spirit on campus.

Vaccine mandates are a hot topic. Do schools have the legal right to require that students and staff be vaccinated? Villanova thinks so, announcing its decision in a June email. “My peers and I are hoping that it [will] make things much more accessible and open,” says Jankowski.

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Swarthmore College has also mandated vaccines. “For us, this was a relatively easy decision,” says Jim Terhune, vice president of student affairs and a member of the university’s COVID-19 planning group. “Once we saw the efficacy of this vaccine, it was very clear what direction we’d go.”

At WCU, a vaccine requirement is unlikely. A state institution would need Harrisburg to pass legislation to mandate it. “I’m told that federal legislation doesn’t allow organizations to coerce people to be vaccinated by vaccines approved on an emergency basis,” says Chris Fiorentino, the school’s president. “That’s the guidance we have.”

Regardless, WCU administrators strongly encourage vaccinations. “I know a lot of my friends have anxiety knowing that some students aren’t vaccinated,” says Scollo.

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While its more than 1,500 students are required to get the shot, Swarthmore is being cautious. “We’ve long required students to receive various vaccines, but we haven’t made a final determination on whether we’ll require staff and faculty to be vaccinated,” says a spokesperson for the school.

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Vaccine inequity has been a major concern. Although they’re widely available in the U.S., some students may not get shots for a variety of reasons. This could be a particularly sensitive issue for foreign students, especially those from countries experiencing outbreaks of the Delta variant. They may not have received vaccines authorized by the FDA. Other countries—particularly China and Russia—manufactured their own.

An even bigger concern is the backlog in visa processing due to COVID travel bans. “We have a real concern that a number of our international students may not be able to get their visas processed in time to start the semester,” Terhune says. “Obviously, every message we put out comes with the caveat that, if circumstances change, we have to adjust.”

Making decisions in real time—then reversing some of them—has landed administrators in uncharted territory. For example, during the summer of 2020, WCU informed students that classes would start in a hybrid model. Eventually, the in-person option was abandoned. “We got to a point where we decided trying to operate face to face was not going to be successful,” Fiorentino says.

Swarthmore’s administrators made a similar decision. During the 2020–21 academic year, the school was almost entirely remote, with only half the students on campus each semester. “I’m knocking on wood,” says Terhune. “But I think, given the circumstances, that it’s highly unlikely we’d be in a position where everything would have to be locked down again.”

A fifth-year student at WCU, Molly Scollo admits that it was “heartbreaking to see campus so dead last year.” Virtual learning was challenging, too. “You just had to move forward,” says the student government president.

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The virus also moved forward. Despite mitigation efforts, outbreaks did occur on local campuses. Over the last academic year, WCU had 280 cases and Swarthmore 100. Villanova reported nearly 1,700 cases, according to the New York Times’ COVID dashboard.

Villanova’s spike occurred at the start of the semester this past spring. At one point, more than 50 percent of its quarantine beds were full. In response, the university prohibited students from accessing dorm buildings other than their own. “You weren’t allowed to see anyone—just the people you live with,” says Jankowski, who lived in a single-bed dorm room. “I went a little stir-crazy.”

This year, there won’t be any virtual classes at Swarthmore College or WCU, except for those that were virtual pre-pandemic. Students will be in class and free to move throughout campus. There will be no mass testing and no quarantine beds on reserve. Fiorentino and other high-ranking officials have worked closely with the Chester County Department of Health and the Pennsylvania departments of Education and Health. Ultimately, though, he has “ultimate responsibility for the decisions.”

After the state reached its 70 percent vaccination rate, Gov. Tom Wolf lifted the mask mandate—and so did WCU. Wolf’s administration no longer requires COVID case tracking, so WCU stopped operating its dashboard.

At Swarthmore, Terhune and his team also rely on guidance from other experts, including alumni from Bryn Mawr and Haverford colleges. Some of them hold senior titles at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Mayo Clinic. Swarthmore also has a COVID-19 planning group that meets twice a week. “We have committees and working groups tasked with any number of different things along the way,” Terhune says.

If COVID taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. To that end, Fiorentino remains cautious. “There are a number of decisions we’ve not made for the fall semester because we’re waiting for more information,” he says. “We’ve talked about the possibility that we’d need to take a look if [something] would change our plans.”

For Scollo, any changes could affect daily campus life. “Is my schedule going to change? Can I sit with my friends at the dining hall? There are a lot of unanswered questions,” she says.

Swarthmore is delaying the publication of its COVID outbreak contingency plans and the metric used to quantify an outbreak. How many students would have to get sick for the school to suspend in-person learning? “We’ve never had any clearly established benchmarks,” says Terhune.

Instead, the college likes to be “responsive to the circumstances that are out there.” With no testing for vaccinated students, however, that may not be so easy to do.

Jankowski and Scollo give their respective universities high ratings in their handling of the pandemic. “It was a crazy situation,” says Jankowski. “There are instances when it could’ve been clearer, but I think overall the messages were communicated.”

And COVID wasn’t all bad news for schools. “We determined there were better ways to convey certain information than the way we’ve been doing it in the past,” says Terhune. “The faculty discovered a whole new set of tools at their disposal that I imagine will find their way into in-person classes.”

Meanwhile, the hope is that COVID won’t find its way back on campus in any significant way. “Things keep trending downward, and we continue to hope for the best,” Fiorentino says.

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Scollo has her own positive spin on things. “You’ve got three classes of students who have no idea what in-person West Chester looks like,” she says. “It’s a really unique perspective that will bring a whole new sense of spirit and energy to events and programs that we haven’t seen in a long time. It’s a great opportunity.”

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