Dr. Fred Kam and multiple others at Auburn University spent months preparing for the day Auburn’s campus would safely reopen.
“Those plans have been in the works for the spring semester back in the fall as far back as late September, October because you've got to put plans in place,” said Kam, the director of the Auburn University Medical Clinic. “People have to register for classes, you have to know where you’re going to have classes, whether the classes wanted to be in person or all remote and stuff like that.”
The university is finally set to re-open its campus for the first time in nearly a year after COVID-19 changed campus life drastically.
Auburn University announced that it is resuming full on-site operation on Feb. 8. All optional remote instruction is set to end on Feb. 7 and university employees who are working remotely are preparing to return to campus by the next day.
The decision to re-open Auburn’s campus was made by multiple entities including an operations community and a senior leadership group. Kam spends each day speaking with East Alabama Medical Center officials to make sure Auburn University can operate safely.
“We have meetings with all the doctors,” he said. “You’ve got the head of the ER, the head of the hospital, Dr. (Ricardo) Maldonado, Dr. (William) Golden, there’s all of us involved in talking about what’s going on, what the trend is, where we are, how we need to pivot – all those things are all factors, and then I communicate information back to Auburn as to where things are.”
There wasn’t a magic number that decided when Auburn’s campus would re-open, he said. The decision to open was made based on multiple factors and was mostly based on science.
“You’re looking at all the data, all of the information and … you’re forecasting on where you think things will be,” Kam said.
Ultimately, the decision to resume on-site operations at Auburn’s campus on Feb. 8 was made based on a trend in declining COVID-19 numbers.
“The trends are coming down. The number of positive cases, the positivity rate, the hospitalization numbers, the numbers across the state and even the numbers across the country are all in the downward trend,” Kam said. “Again, you make these decisions in advance of what the trends look like, and so we figured that it was time and we’re able to get people slowly back on to campus over a period of time.”
Auburn University has seen a downward trend in the number of new COVID-19 cases since 113 cases were reported during the week ending on Jan. 17. The university said that 75 new virus cases were self-reported to the school during the week ending on Jan. 31, three fewer cases than the previous week. The school also reported a 0.9 percent positivity rate among those tested through its voluntary sentinel testing, according to data released Tuesday.
Lee County, the county in which Auburn University is located, has also begun to see a downward trend in the number of new COVID-19 cases. The county’s average number of new COVID-19 cases reported per day during the past two weeks has steadily declined since it averaged about 139 new COVID-19 cases per day on Jan. 16, according to Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) data.
The county was averaging 92 new COVID-19 cases per day on Thursday.
There are multiple safeguards in place at Auburn for the campus to reopen safely, including a universal mask policy, social distancing, sentinel testing, active disease testing, vaccination and monoclonal antibody infusions.
“We’ve got a pretty full gambit of abilities that exist,” Kam said.
Although the campus may be open, Auburn’s campus will not look the same as it did a year ago. Not every student will have returned, and classrooms may not look the same.
“Not everybody's going to be back on campus,” Kam said. “Some of the faculty who are vulnerable are going to continue to teach their courses remote. Some are going to flex, so they’ll do some on campus, some remote. Some are going to be all in person.”
Inside the classroom, students will not be sitting right next to each other, as they follow social distancing guidelines. Students and faculty members are also expected to wear facemasks the entire time while inside a campus building.
Campus life will also look different. The university currently limits organizational events to 50 people or less. Students, however, will get to live in the new normal, which Kam expects the university to operate under for most, if not all, of 2021.
“They can go to on-campus dining facilities and be able to eat,” said Kam. “They can potentially have organizational meetings within the guidelines that have been put in place. They can interact with each other. They can go to class.
“That new normal is probably what’s going to operate for most, if not all, of 2021 as we see how the virus behaves and how vaccine gets rolled out and what the trend is across the country, and across the world in some cases.”
From faculty and staff to students and their parents, Kam said he’s heard a full array of feedback about Auburn resuming on-site operations.
“We’re hearing from students, we’re hearing from parents, we’re hearing from community members, community leaders, we’re hearing from just about everyone,” he said.
When it comes to faculty, Kam said he’s heard both positive and negative feedback about reopening campus.
“There are faculty who think that we should be remote only and think that that’s the way it should have been from back in March of last year,” Kam said. “And there are ones who think that we should be all in person.
“When you have thousands of people that work on this campus, you’re going to get every opinion from one end of the spectrum to the other.”
Dr. Susan Fillippeli, an Auburn University School of Communication & Journalism lecturer, feels safe with campus reopening.
“With the university's aggressive vaccination program and the safeguards put into place, I think we can reopen safely,” she said.
Fillippeli has been teaching in-person since the semester began on Jan. 11. Her large lecture section, which has 94 students, has 50 percent of the students attending class in person and the other 50 percent participating on Zoom.
“We are in a large lecture hall so there is plenty of room for the students attending to spread out, and everyone is wearing a mask,” she said. “It will be better when everyone can attend in person, but for now this works.”
Dr. John Carvalho, a journalism professor at Auburn University, is also confident he and his students will be safe when on-campus operations resume.
“I personally have been OK with doing face-to-face classes, but as long as the university has been allowing students to opt-out (in favor of online instruction), I have not been forcing them to come to class,” he said.
Kam said the university is prepared for multiple situations in the instance a COVID-19 outbreak happens on campus, but there is no one right answer.
“We will do what we think is safer and it may be that we close campus and go back to all remote; it could be that in some cases if we’re having an outbreak in, let’s say, a specific dorm, we may quarantine that whole dorm,” he said. “There’s no one answer. It depends on the situation, and regardless of the situation, we’ll do what we think is right and in an effort to make things safer.”
Kam also stressed that this is an unprecedented situation and there’s no step-by-step guide on how to do things when it comes to COVID-19. But at the end of the day, Kam plans to make decisions based on science and facts.
“This is an unprecedented situation so nobody has a playbook that you follow," he said. "It’s going to be based on information, science and then good medical judgment or common sense, with a lot of logic and other pieces put into it."