College students should avoid all gatherings, health department says

Temple University in Philadelphia

Health officials over the weekend advised college students in Philadelphia to avoid all social gatherings, following outbreaks at universities around the country and rising case counts at schools in the city.

Some colleges in the area reopened with a hybrid of in-person and online courses, with students returning to campus earlier this month, while others choose a 100% virtual semester.

Officials said the new guidance was based on interviews with students who caught the virus after attending small social gatherings, including events with less than 25 people.

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

Students should only spend time with people who they live with, and, when they have to interact, they should wear masks, officials said.

Previously, the health department had been asking colleges to restrict gatherings of more than 25 people indoors and 50 outdoors, which is in line with the city’s overall COVID-19 event protocols.

The city’s largest college, Temple University, suspended in-person classes Sunday after revealing that there are 103 active coronavirus cases in its student body. About 5,000 were tested over the past two weeks, according to a letter emailed to students.

Temple President Richard Englert, in the letter, said the spike appears to be related to small social gatherings off-campus. Conversations between the university’s administration and the health department prompted the new guidelines, he said.

“We are hopeful, of course, that we will be able to return to the full hybrid program in place at the start of the semester, but any such decision will be driven by data and public health guidance available at the time,” Englert wrote.

Temple will be setting up a testing center on Monday for students who have symptoms. Classes will be 100% online through Sept. 11.

Only about a quarter of Temple’s courses this fall have had an in-person component, and all students living in on-campus housing were tested prior to arrival. About 3,200 are living in the university’s dorms, compared with 5,000 last year.

The health department “is in contact with all of the colleges and universities right now to make them aware of the developing situation,” spokesman Jim Garrow told Metro.

“In terms of what they need to do, we hope that they communicate these new recommendations to their students and strongly encourage that students take heed,” he added.

St. Joseph’s University warned that students at parties — both on and off campus — could be suspended, and student organizations could lose backing. The school required all students and staff to be tested by Friday.

So far, the university, which has adopted a hybrid model, has recorded 11 cases, according to its website.

Temple has also threatened to exclude students from campus if they don’t follow COVID-19 protocols.

La Salle University leaders said they heard reports before the semester started of off-campus students not following virus guidelines. Some of the behavior triggered a disciplinary process.

The university decided earlier this month to go almost completely virtual, with limited exceptions.

Classes for the fall will also be online for all undergraduate students at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania, which encouraged students from outside the city not to travel to Philadelphia. Both institutions also shuttered on-campus housing.

Most schools using the hybrid plan, including Temple and Jefferson University, asked students to self-quarantine for 14 days before returning to campus.

At Villanova University, in suburban Radnor Township, courses began primarily in-person on Aug. 17. As of Sunday, 17 students had contracted COVID-19, including 11 who live on-campus.