Following Penn's decision to reverse course and no longer invite students back to campus for the fall semester, The Daily Pennsylvanian sat down with Penn's Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé to discuss why Penn made the last-minute decision. Dubé has been involved with guiding Penn’s fall policies as the leader of Student Wellness Services.
On August 11, Penn announced students would be unable to return to campus housing, after announcing only 10 days prior that the University would mail all domestic undergraduates COVID-19 tests. The school had also laid out extensive plans for symptom testing, health regulations, and move-in processes.
Penn President Amy Gutmann wrote in the August 11 email that the number of students from high-risk states who would need to go into a two-week quarantine upon arrival, and "supply chain issues" with the COVID-19 tests, were two main reasons Penn chose to backtrack.
In the interview with the DP, Dubé provided more details about the rationale behind Penn's change of plans. Here are the five main takeaways from the conversation.
1. Closing on-campus housing was always on the table.
While Penn has been working on plans to reopen its campus for nearly four months, Dubé said the possibility of keeping campus closed continued to be part of the discussion, though it was always a last resort.
"We had always considered [closing on-campus housing], but we had always thought that we had a good plan that would minimize risk," Dubé said. "A number of factors just coalesced and the [need to change the plan] came together very, very quickly."
"This decision was not made because we gave up," Dubé continued. "It was made because we just recognized that we have to be humble when we face many things that we cannot control."
2. Supply issues with COVID-19 tests were not the only or main reason for the decision.
Penn originally planned to mail all domestic undergraduates a testing kit between Aug. 8 and Aug. 12., which would have included a COVID-19 saliva test conducted by Genetworx, a third-party testing laboratory. The tests were then supposed to be processed and results would be sent to Penn within 72 hours of the lab receiving them, Dubé said in an interview with the DP on Aug. 3.
Dubé said Penn ran into an issue with the lab, as Genetworx were not able to get enough saliva tests for all domestic undergraduates, and students would have had to perform a nasal swab test instead.
"This was a minor problem and we were able to find a workaround," Dubé said of the saliva testing kit shortage. "There was nothing about this that was the 'fatal blow.'"
Though testing kits were supposed to be mailed between Aug. 8 and Aug. 12, Dubé said no testing kits were ever shipped to students' because by then Penn had made the decision to close on-campus housing.
3. Peer institutions' change of plans made Penn look into closing campus more heavily.
On Aug. 6, Johns Hopkins University shifted to a solely online education model this fall. Similarly, Princeton University completely reversed its plan to invite first years and juniors to campus on Aug. 7 in favor of an entirely online model.
As both universities are peer institutions located relatively close to Penn, Dubé said the decisions made Penn look more closely at its plan, as well as make phone calls to officials at both universities.
4. A recent CHOP epidemiological model was another major factor.
David Rubin, the director of the PolicyLab at the Children's Hospital of Pennsylvania, and his team have been creating COVID-19 Outlook epidemiological models at least once a week since May 27. The models predict which regions of the United States will see rises in cases, and where outbreaks may occur.
In the Aug. 5 COVID-19 Outlook post, Rubin and his team wrote they "are not convinced Philadelphia is out of the woods, as its bordering counties in Pennsylvania and South Jersey all have increasing transmission risk."
For Dubé, who has been in close contact with Rubin and his team throughout the summer, the epidemiological models were not new information. But when Johns Hopkins and Princeton announced new campus plans and cited Rubin's models, Dubé said he questioned whether or not Penn was missing something. Dubé said he then spoke to Rubin, took another look at the models, and saw that predictions had only continued to worsen for the Philadelphia area.
5. Plans for the 2021 spring semester remain up in the air.
Dubé said it is far too early to determine whether or not Penn will be able to open on-campus housing in the spring with any certainty.