On Tuesday, Mar. 23, Muhlenberg students received an urgent email informing them that the campus would shift back to Level Three: High Alert. This is the second highest level of the alert system that the College outlined in their Spring 2021 COVID policy. Previously the College had been at Level Two: Moderate Alert due to “a slight, but steady uptick in our number of positive cases,” Gulati wrote in an email to students on Mar. 15.
On Mar. 1, the College announced that it was entering Phase Three of the visitor policy, allowing any student living in Muhlenberg housing access to any other Muhlenberg owned housing in restricted numbers. The decision was made to allow “some additional opportunities for social connection with other on campus students, while remaining in compliance with policy. It also continues to prevent students from needing to go off campus which inherently presents a greater risk in our residence halls,” Gulati said in the announcement. The roll back on restrictions was short lived, as the visitor policy went back to Phase Two only two weeks later, and then back to Phase One shortly afterwards.
The week of Mar. 22, 44 positive COVID cases were reported. According to the Muhlenberg College COVID-19 Dashboard, 21 of those cases are off-campus students. Dean of Students Allison Gulati, shared the likely causes of this sudden rise in positive cases based on the data. One contributing factor was “larger high-risk parties/gatherings on and off campus before and during St. Patrick’s Day weekend,” said Gulati.
“I feel very stressed. I just want to return to Phase 3 and for the return of some of my in-person activities. Hopefully we will be back on track in the next few weeks.”
Responding to the rise in cases, Madeline de la Parra ‘23 says, “I feel very stressed. I just want to return to Phase 3 and for the return of some of my in-person activities. Hopefully we will be back on track in the next few weeks.”
Other causes include students traveling off campus and students expanding their “pods.” Another culprit: students withholding information from the contact tracers. “It has not just been hosting or attending parties, it has been that in the contact tracing process, people were not always willing to share pertinent health information that could have prevented further spread,” said Gulati.
Brynnmarie Dorsey, Director of Student Health Services, explained that contact tracing is crucial to the College’s efforts to contain any potential outbreak. “Contact tracing allows us to identify possible sources of exposure as well as identify persons who may have been in close contact with a COVID positive person,” Gulati said.
Contact tracing is covered under Muhlenberg’s medical amnesty policy. “Students will not face alcohol and/or drug policy violations and/or COVID-19 violations,” said Dorsey.
On Friday, Mar. 26, students were informed that the College would be returning to Level Two: Moderate Alert; however, this was done very cautiously. For instance, while indoor dining was open again, students were highly encouraged to continue to take their meals to-go.
The Muhlenberg COVID policy is clear that travel increases potential exposure to COVID-19, and the College is staying vigilant to keep case numbers in check moving forward. There are no exceptions to that travel policy for religious holidays. “Significant spread related to holiday travel will necessarily lead to further restrictions and potentially jeopardize the rest of our in-person semester,” said Gulati.
“The College’s Religious and Spiritual Life departments, which support a broad range of religions and spiritual perspectives will be offering many programs in which students can practice their faith and traditions,” said Dorsey.
The strict travel policy left many students to reflect on the religious holidays they observe this time of year.
Ayden Levine ‘23 shared, “This holiday was super hard for me due to the fact that Passover to me is a time when I’m surrounded by family. I recently lost two of my grandparents due to COVID since last Passover, so grappling with that and the fact that I wouldn’t see my family at all for this holiday was really difficult, but the fantastic seder that my fellow board members Matan Kogen ‘23 and Eden Chanko ‘23 put together really helped ease some of that pain and anxiety.”
“It is frustrating watching a few students ruin it for everyone else, but I feel like most of the students are doing a good job keeping the campus community safe.”
“I don’t mind that they don’t want us going home for the holidays out of the safety of the greater school and Allentown community; however, this is rendered moot by allowing athletes to travel to other campuses to play contact sports,” said Bari Dershowitz ‘21.
Indeed it seems that students are eager to blame one specific group for the recent outbreak. Gulati says, “The rumors I have heard have ranged from ‘this particular group is responsible for this outbreak’, to ‘this group took a bus trip to Atlantic City.’” She called for an end to these rumors, claiming that testing revealed “students who are positive from different residence halls, teams, organizations, majors and other activities.”
What conditions need to be met to return to Level One: New Normal? Gulati says, “[There are a] combination of factors we need to see,” including but not limited to, “positivity rates that show us that the spread of the virus is slowing… Contact tracing data that demonstrates that the spread is more contained and/or from mostly known sources and high compliance with COVID policies and health precautions being taken.”
Dorsey provided insight into the sudden shift to Phase Three and then back to Phase Two, saying that “the College may increase alert level for short periods while gathering information about the source of spread… we do not believe there to be a widespread, uncontrollable concern at this time.”
De la Parra said, “It is frustrating watching a few students ruin it for everyone else, but I feel like most of the students are doing a good job keeping the campus community safe.”