We are nearing the end of a remarkably successful fall semester, especially considering where we started and what we’ve been through. Just five months ago, our greatest challenge was figuring out how we could deliver a Mason education to a record number of students during a global pandemic. Now, in two weeks, we will graduate a class at winter commencement that includes more than 4,600 graduates and more than 5,000 when counting students earning certificates.
We have achieved so much this fall, even as the coronavirus has shut down operations at many other universities. As of Sunday, we had just 35 active cases in our community – 24 students (most of them off campus) and 11 employees and contractors. For the entire Fall semester, we had just 46 cases among our residential students, and to the best of our knowledge, we experienced no known cases of transmission in the classrooms.
Our ability to keep Mason safe and focused on our mission is a credit to our students, faculty and staff. Together, we have kept cases relatively low and Mason operating. Our efforts are working, and we must continue to work together to keep Mason safe.
For the final weeks of the Fall semester, we have switched over to virtual instruction, as planned. Yet we continue to stay vigilant. Next week, we will test the nearly 1,300 residential students who have elected to remain on campus through the end of the semester. This is an important component of our safety plan to see if there was any impact from the Thanksgiving break.
As we look ahead to the Spring semester, I’d like to share some important changes that will help us continue to keep our community safe.
Spring semester will begin on January 25, and we will work through Spring Break. In consultation with the Faculty Senate and our leadership, we have decided to push the start date for the Spring semester back one week and will work through Spring Break. This will allow more time to assess the number of cases in the region before bringing students back, and will also limit travel away from campus during the semester.
Ramping up our surveillance testing operations to identify cases early. The number of coronavirus cases has risen sharply across the nation in recent weeks and health officials project cases will continue to rise through the winter months. We have managed to keep cases low at Mason, in large part because of our commitment to random, surveillance testing. Now, we plan to raise our weekly testing capacity, increasing from 1,000 tests per week this semester and setting a goal to test 10,000 people per week by March. We will be able to scale up our testing capacity each week by switching to a saliva test, which is faster, easier to administer and safer. Increased testing allows us to pinpoint problem areas, limit spread and create a safer environment. We will do this by:
- Working toward testing all residential students a minimum of once per week.
- Testing more faculty, staff, non-residential students (10-20 percent) each week.
- Increasing diagnostic testing to meet anticipated growth in cases.
Mason faculty will now be leading our testing operations. I am pleased to announce that Drs. Ali Andalibi, Lance Liotta and Virginia Espina – three of our most esteemed faculty members – will be overseeing an in-house surveillance testing analysis at the Mason CAP/CLIA laboratory, which will dramatically shorten turnaround time for results. This is an important change in our operations, one that will allow us to rely on the expertise of our faculty and aligns with my goal to expand research in areas of critical importance.
The healthcare professionals at Student Health Services, led by Dr. Lisa Park, will continue to lead diagnostic testing and ensure appropriate clinical management of students with positive results, including proper isolation and quarantine.
We will be sending out more details in January on our testing operations.
A safer environment will allow us to bring more people back to campus. Our testing and safety efforts this fall, and a close relationship with Fairfax County Health Department, were instrumental in keeping case counts low. Therefore, as conditions allow, we will continue to observe our safety precautions and work to bring more students, faculty and staff back to campus this spring. This includes increasing in-person instruction, increasing the number of occupants in our residence halls and setting a goal to have faculty and staff work up to 50 percent of their time on campus, in accordance with our public health professionals and if conditions allow. We know that students are asking for more opportunities to engage on campus, and we will continue to work to provide them, as long as we can do so in a safe environment.
We are exploring an idea to add Patriot Learning Pods for school-age children. As I have previously mentioned, our goal is to allow for more faculty and staff to work on campus in the spring. I’m also well aware of many challenges that parents of school-aged children face with most schools still operating partially or fully virtually.
To address these challenges, we are exploring the idea of adding Patriot Learning Pods on campus. Patriot Learning Pods would provide a safe, supervised space where elementary school children of Mason students, faculty, and staff could complete online schoolwork while their parents are on campus. Our Human Resources team recently sent out a survey to gauge interest, and it appears this would be something of interest to many of our faculty and staff, so expect to see an update from HR soon.
We are prepared to pivot to all-virtual instruction this spring, if necessary. Our leadership team continues to monitor the number of cases in the region and is in close contact with public health officials. As always, we will follow their guidance and are prepared to pivot to virtual instruction at any moment, if we determine that is in the best interest of our community. Safety remains a top priority.
We have so much to be thankful for this holiday season. At the top of my list is this incredible community that I’m now a part of. Let’s continue to do our part: wear a mask in public; practice physical distancing, complete the Mason COVID Health Check™, and if you feel unwell, isolate and call your healthcare provider. If you have had exposure to COVID-19, abide by medical and public health recommendations, and quarantine.
Let’s continue to keep Mason safe together. Thank you.