Philly’s coronavirus response

Temple suspends classes as Philly Health Department warns students against social gatherings

Among Philadelphia’s three biggest universities, only the Owls started with a hybrid model.

Signs with safety precautions are posted all over Temple's North Philly campus

Signs with safety precautions are posted all over Temple's North Philly campus

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
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Update, Sept. 3: Temple has suspended all non-essential in-person teaching for the rest of the fall semester, the university said. At this point, 212 coronavirus cases have been reported among the student body. Symptoms among those testing positive have been either mild, moderate or totally absent, per the school. Students who make the decision to leave on-campus housing by Sept. 13 will be eligible for full refund.

Update, Aug. 30: Temple University announced it will suspend in-person learning for two weeks starting Monday as the school’s active COVID case count jumps to 103 people. All instruction except “essential” classes will be online through at least Sept. 11.

Responding to an uptick in coronavirus cases among college students who returned to campus this week, the Philadelphia Health Department on Saturday updated its recommendation regarding social gatherings.

The new advice boils down to this: Don’t go to them. At all.

Philly currently has a legal limit of no more than 25 people at indoor gatherings and 50 people at outdoor gatherings. Those restrictions are reiterated in the reopening guidance provided to colleges and universities in mid-August.

But if you’re not maintaining social distancing and keeping your mask on at all times — like, maybe, when having a couple beers on a stoop or crashing a couch to catch a Phillies game — it doesn’t really matter how many people are gathered together. If you’re with any folks not part of the “household unit” you’ve been self-quarantining with, there’s the potential for COVID transmission.

“It does not require large social gatherings for this virus to spread,” Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley explained. “Any time two or more people are near each other without wearing masks, there is a risk.”

Coronavirus outbreaks have cropped up at colleges across Pennsylvania, totalling more than 250 cases as of Friday, according to the Inquirer. A tracker in the New York Times puts the national number at more than 26k.

Among Philadelphia’s three biggest universities, only Temple University started with a hybrid model. Though other plans were floated, Drexel and UPenn ended up beginning the academic year using almost-entirely remote instruction, with students not invited back to on-campus housing.

About 9,000 people have returned to Temple’s main North Philadelphia campus, per the Inquirer, and the Temple News reports 3,700 are living in dorms. Over the last three weeks of August, 58 coronavirus cases were identified. These are all students, not faculty or staff, according to the school’s dashboard, which shows a single-day spike of 22 new positives on Friday.

Many classes at Temple are being held virtually, with in-person learning restricted to highly-distanced halls. (Not easy, professors say.) Safety signs are posted everywhere, and surface cleanings happen often.

Classrooms are not the problem, health officials concluded after interviews with students that showed some had attended social gatherings. It’s college, after all — and young adults are sick of isolation after a summer of pandemic lockdowns.

“I’m ready to go to a movie theater that’s packed,” 18-year-old Lawncrest resident Steven Garcia told Billy Penn and WHYY earlier this month.

So far six of the positive-testing Temple students live off-campus, which brings focus to concerns of residents in the surrounding neighborhoods, who fear a potential outbreak.

The city is still developing new documentation with the updated guidance for students to avoid all social gatherings, according to a Health Department release, and will continue to watch how things develop. The goal is to stop any coronavirus hot spot before it spins out of control, like it has at the University of Alabama or UNC-Chapel Hill.

“We have been monitoring the outbreaks in colleges across the country,” Health Commissioner Farley said, “and are trying to limit the spread if COVID-19 in colleges here.”

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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