Calhoun County

Albion College works to create a 'protective bubble' around students to keep out COVID-19

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage. if you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.

The wastewater system at Albion College is enabling officials there to immediately pinpoint and identify cases of COVID-19 on campus.

Testing of wastewater samples is part of a three-pronged approach that college officials developed in their efforts to mitigate and contain the spread of the virus on campus. Their efforts are considered among the most comprehensive and aggressive responses taken by colleges and universities throughout the United States, according to national news outlets like MSN and News Channel 4 in Washington, D.C.

Matthew Johnson, president of Albion College, says about one week after the first wave of students came back the college became aware of the possibility of wastewater testing to detect COVID-19.

Matthew Johnson, president of Albion College“Our housing is organized in such a way that we could identify wastewater exit pipes that captured big groups of our students,” Johnson says. “All of the fraternities dump into a single main and that represents six fraternities of 20 plus men each. Then we know there’s a residence hall that houses 400 students and about two-thirds of the student housing population is in big units where we can tap that main.

“If we can do that, we know we don’t have to test students every day. We have the capacity and know-how to immediately test students in residence halls.”

Johnson said the college has identified one positive case of COVID-19 through wastewater testing and that person has since been cleared to resume campus activities. He said he and the staff knew COVID-19 would end up on campus, but they wanted to develop a rapid response system to clearly identify infection, and move in quickly to isolate and prevent community spread.

Kevin Green, Environmental Public Health Director for Calhoun County, says the wastewater testing is something that has been advocated by the Centers for Disease Control and other Federal agencies.

“Albion College doesn’t occupy a big area,” he says. “The wastewater testing helps them more because it gives them a general idea of where they’re at with the concentration of COVID in their area.”

In addition to the wastewater testing, Albion College also has pulled together virtual presentations by national speakers including Michigan Congresswomen Debbie Dingell and Newt Gingrich who speak about COVID-19 and the steps that must be taken to deal responsibly with COVID-19.

Johnson says there also have been presentations from frontline and medical professionals with expertise in infectious diseases and those who work at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

“We developed a seven-module training for students and staff that they had to complete before the start of the Fall semester,” Johnson says. “We also developed the brand ‘Together Safely’ and that’s a huge educational push.”

The more visible changes on campus to protect students and staff include the installation of plexiglass barriers, automatic doors, layout changes to classrooms, and tents and fireplaces outside on campus for classes and to provide places to socialize.

Johnson says he thinks the college has spent close to $2 million on the changes that have been made to protect students and staff. He says this does not take into account staff who were taken away from their regular jobs to get students in safely and adjusted to the new reality on the campus.

Some classes are outdoors to provide social distancing at Albion College.“My team will ramp right back up, but there’s a cost to that,” he says.

The less visible changes include an app that tracks the location of students and asks them to provide a health report each morning. Johnson says if the compliance rate stays where it is or increases, some of the current COVID-related restrictions on campus could be lifted. He cites the resumption of dine-in service at dining halls as an example.

Hitting the ground running

Johnson was hired in April to replace outgoing president Mauri A. Ditzler. His official start date was July 1, but he says it became very apparent to the college’s board members and Ditzler early on that every decision that would be made going forward was about the future.

Johnson says he began attending meetings with Ditzler and in early May a Coronavirus Planning Task Force was established with sub-units that would deal with areas such as the academic calendar, health and safety, and employee issues. He says all of the plans were vetted through an external medical advisory board headed by alumni Dr. Jim Wilson who was appointed Presidential Advisor.

Johnson says the college took a “sledgehammer” approach to testing when students first returned to campus. They were tested every seven days. That soon shifted to testing every 14 days that will eventually go to randomized testing.

Albion College has adopted a three-pronged approach to fighting COVID-19 on campus.“We’ve worked with local businesses to get them into a testing program and we’ve worked with the state of Michigan and the mayor of Albion to get free testing three days a week,” Johnson says.  “We’re trying to create a bubble for our community and our campus.

“We are looking at what is the most cost-effective and least disruptive way and we’ll be doing that for the rest of the semester,” he says. “We’ve only had one active case on campus.”

The college also has return-to-work policies for every employee as well as policies regarding who gets to teach online. Johnson says the school also works with students who may want to leave campus for various reasons.

“If a student wants to go outside the bubble we’re created, we assess that risk,” Johnson says. “This is not about controlling the student, it’s about controlling the risk.

“We’re an educational institution. Our first response to everything and our job is to give students the tools they need to be contributing members of society and give them the tools so that they can make wise choices to positively impact their community,” Johnson says. “This will only work if we give students the tools they need to make wise choices.”

“Every time we make a decision we put that out to the community within one day,” Johnson says.
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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.