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Bridget Wingert: Happy to Be Here -- DelVal followed the science


On the Delaware Valley University campus, everyone wears a mask – no exceptions.

And DelVal has had no known cases of COVID-19 in a classroom setting. Some students and faculty have tested positive for the coronavirus but all cases have been traced to off-campus settings.

“We know what we were doing was correct,” President Maria Gallo said as the school approached the Thanksgiving break. “We’ve handled the problem step by step.”

Back in March, the university sent all the students home for spring break. “We put in place a plan informed by guidelines from the CDC, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the state Department of Education, the state and county departments of health,” Dr. Gallo said.

And that, she said, is because “we have followed the science.” DelVal has been a science-based institution since its founding as the National Farm School in 1896.

Immediately, Gallo formed the President’s Task Force, comprised of representatives of all the functioning areas of the campus. “We created a plan and continue to adapt and learn from our experience,” she said. The university created the COVID Response Team, which meets every morning to review every case and trace the contacts made by the infected person, working with Dr. David Damsker of the Bucks County Board of Health and with Doylestown Hospital.

The COVID Response Team consists of Jennifer Brennan, director of human resources; Tim Poirier, dean of student development; Miriam Torres, director of Student Health Center; Colin Chambers, director of risk management, environmental health and safety; Kathy Howell, assistant vice president of marketing and communications; Dr. Cynthia Keler, professor of biology; and Dr. Jean Smolen, dean of the School of Life and Physical Sciences.

The students transferred last spring to remote learning from home and the resilient faculty pivoted to meet the new demand. But students, the majority, wanted to return to face-to-face teaching, so the faculty and administration prepared for that return this fall. Education at DelVal prides itself in experiential leaning, much of it taking place on its 1,000-acre campus – for programs like horticulture and landscape architecture, animal science, and conservation and wildlife management.

With students away from campus through spring and the first wave of COVID-19, staff from Doylestown Hospital, wary of returning home at night and carrying the virus with them, were able to sleep in the dormitories.

Over the summer the President’s Task Force developed the Fall 2020 Blueprint: COVID-19 Reopening Plan – a flexible document that adapts to new situations as they develop. After preparing the faculty, sanitizing the spaces that students would occupy, bringing in Plexiglas screens for the dining hall, investing in masks, finalizing the rules of mask wearing and social distancing, and rearranging furniture, the university was ready for the fall semester. Random and regular testing was in place and dormitory space was set aside for students under quarantine. As the fall semester progressed, the university saw a rise in cases when the virus began a second surge. With the semester winding down, the university reported 28 cases among students and staff – all under quarantine.

“It’s been point to point navigation, adaptive management, changing and modulating our approach as we go through the pandemic,” Gallo said. Possibly, the reason DelVal has had success in controlling cases – in addition to careful planning and consistency – is that it has a relatively small student body, with about 900 students living on campus and 900 commuting. Altogether, there are 2,450 undergraduate, graduate and continuing studies students.

After Thanksgiving break, classes will resume remotely on Nov. 30 and end Dec. 1. Finals begin Dec. 2 in a remote format and end Dec. 8. Students will return to campus to begin the spring semester in person Feb. 1.

It will be an important spring for the university as it celebrates its 125th anniversary. Faculty and students from across the campus are joining the planning, creating films and special events.

Two important dates are in focus: April 10, 1896, when the National Farm School Charter was signed, and September 1897, when the first class of 10 students entered the school.

The university has been working with the Doylestown Historical Society to build a year-long exhibit, which will open outdoors at the historical society headquarters April 18.

Spring, as always, should bring enough relief to celebrate a quasquicentennial.