Oglethorpe curbs pandemic’s effects in fall semester, offers rare higher ed success story

During the fall 2020 semester, Oglethorpe University achieved what few institutions in the country have: it successfully opened its campus to residential students during the pandemic. By using an emergency preparedness approach and consulting and partnering with leading experts, Oglethorpe was able to put the health of its students first and curb the spread of the virus.

Results are telling

Oglethorpe’s classes were 100% remote during the fall, but students were allowed to live on campus, and approximately 211 students opted to do so. During this time, the university experienced only eight cases among its on-campus residents, with three of those identified upon students’ arrival for fall semester move-in. Those eight positive cases were quarantined immediately and the campus was able to eliminate the spread. Remarkably, following Thanksgiving break, 175 students returned to campus and testing later revealed zero additional cases on campus.

Key to success: Rely on the experts

Partnerships with Canton & Company and Lifeguard Health Networks’ LifeguardRx® mobile app were key to this successful outcome. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Oglethorpe went a step beyond most colleges and universities by contracting a leading healthcare advisory firm with expertise in pandemic response.

While others assembled personnel across administrative departments, Oglethorpe leadership tapped experts from Canton & Company for outside expertise in emergency preparedness to support the university’s response team in developing public health protocols for the semester. Led by Dr. Michael Consuelos, Canton’s senior medical executive with more than 20 years of pandemic and emergency preparedness leadership experience, Oglethorpe’s COVID-19 Task Force experienced dramatic results by leveraging a structured “playbook” that aligns with guidelines set forth by the CDC, ACHA, and NCAA to allow the university to successfully bring students back to campus.

Canton & Company worked with Oglethorpe’s leadership to institute the following protocols during fall semester:

  • Population testing
  • Social distancing procedures
  • Student self-assembling in small, limited PODs
  • Daily symptoms monitoring and case management
  • Resident assistants and coaches monitoring campus adherence
  • Governance and institutional reporting

The team also provided consultation and guidance on technology solutions for health screening and contact tracing on campus. As a result, Oglethorpe also partnered with Lifeguard Health Networks to provide a mobile app for students, faculty and staff returning to campus or conducting business on campus, taking full advantage of the company’s LifeguardRx® COVID-19 symptom screening capabilities.

What differentiated OU’s response?

Enabled by LifeguardRx®, OU mobilized a virtual support team comprised of health service managers (or case managers), as well as resident assistants serving as compliance managers, to scale program adherence and safety.

Through LifeguardRx®, individuals complete a simple self-screening report twice a day to track COVID-19 symptoms. Quickly identifying symptoms allows for quick response and action to contain the virus. (The information collected is maintained in compliance with FERPA, which protects records from disclosure.) The app then notifies individuals of further actions they need to take based on symptoms reported. Users can also create and add to their “Circle of Care” in the app so parents, guardians, family, spouses, and/or other close acquaintances can be updated on their reported status.

To maximize ongoing compliance and without adding any additional resources, Oglethorpe was able to leverage LifeguardRx® and tap into its RAs, who spent only a few minutes a day to securely monitor student adherence. During the semester, among the 211 students on campus, 25 were resident assistants who managed compliance as part of their responsibilities. Some staff, including athletics coaches, were assigned to also monitor compliance of student athletes. Among students living on campus, 100% registered for the mobile app, with an average 92% daily compliance rate.

Authorized case managers secured real-time access to students’ reported symptoms and could privately respond directly with students. This approach sped up the awareness and the response to students presenting with symptoms. It also created a culture of accountability—as well as a sense of shared community responsibility—within the residence halls. Furthermore, as a small, private school, Oglethorpe had an advantage and was better equipped to be nimble and handle individual cases free from outside pressure, as well as build a culture of accountability among those on campus.

This model is the first-of-its-kind and unique to other universities in country, but more importantly, is scalable and sustainable, according to Lifeguard. In fact, OU is scaling the LifeguardRx® app to all students, faculty and staff who will be on campus—more than double the number of fall participants—for the spring semester.

While the LifeguardRX® app was the cornerstone of preventative measures, the virus’s lack of spread on campus can also be credited to a range of other measures and safeguards in place, including:

  • Petrel Pledge: Students were asked to adhere to the this social contract, a recognized shared responsibility for the overall health of the campus community, and to abide by Oglethorpe’s COVID-19 Handbook, which outlines required conduct in detail and consequences for conduct violations.
  • Petrel Pause: As part of the Petrel Pledge, this mandatory two weeks of enhanced social distancing minimized exposure both on and off campus during students’ first two weeks on campus. Students who elected to return to campus after Thanksgiving break were required to reenter a Petrel Pause up return to campus.
  • Petrel Pods: After the two-week Petrel Pause, students were allowed to enter into “pods” and expand their social circle.
  • Single occupancy rooms and bathrooms
  • High level sanitation procedures on campus
  • Restricting visitors on campus
  • Requiring employees to work from home unless focused in residence life student services

During the spring semester, Oglethorpe will also test residential building wastewater for evidence of the virus; install acrylic barriers in classrooms hosting hybrid courses among other facility upgrades; and institute strict athlete and athletic department staff guidelines, including multi-weekly testing, to qualify for training and competition.

Finally, for nearly a year now, Oglethorpe has maintained regular, weekly updates to the entire university community from the COVID-19 Task Force, comprised of faculty and staff and advised by the university’s professional health consultants. Those updates are available on the university’s dedicated COVID-19 website, along with the latest handbook outlining COVID-19 protocol and a reporting dashboard with up-to-date data on positive cases.

As Oglethorpe prepares to welcome approximately 400 students in early February, the framework for a successful spring semester is tested and ready.