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Education

School In A Bubble? Benedict College President Says It Worked

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With the fall semester wrapped up, some colleges did better than others keeping COVID-19 cases low on campus. In Columbia, South Carolina, officials at the private, historically Black Benedict College operated under the bubble concept. It’s an approach similar to the NBA and some other professional sports. Students are pretty much not allowed to leave campus, testing is done frequently and visitors are banned.

Benedict College President Roslyn Clark Artis says they had a total of 17 COVID-19 cases over the course of the 12-week semester that ended last month. She calls that a success and explains how it worked.

Roslyn Clark Artis
Benedict College
Roslyn Clark Artis

Roslyn Clark Artis: We have an advantage — Benedict is a small, private institution, about 2,000 students. And we have a gated campus. It's a closed campus for the most part, with sort of a security gate. As we began to develop what a bubble meant for us, testing was the primary feature of our bubble.

Every single student, staff and faculty member had to be tested prior to entering the campus. No visitors in or out. Our commuter students were not permitted to access the campus. So the only students on the campus were those who actually live there. And of course, the only other individuals on the campus were the limited number of staff and faculty who were required to be there.

Gwendolyn Glenn: And for those who have never seen Benedict's campus, as you said, it's gated. Did you have security guards at the gates? Was there only one entrance in and out of the campus?

Artis: We closed our second and third entrance. There are three. And we do have 24-hour security physically manage that gate every day. And there are stations set up. Every employee has to check in and then move to their work location. After 9:30, the gate is closed. There are pylons kind of blocking your entrance to the campus. And if you want to gain access to, if you happen to be late for work, you will be tapped by the security guard at the gate and have to answer a series of really annoying, intrusive questions.

Glenn: In terms of the people who work there, your faculty, your maintenance people and that, as you said, they were coming in and out. Did they have to take a test daily or how did you work that?

Artis: We did not require staff and faculty to test daily. Of course, they tested at the outset. We also tested 100% again at midterm and we did random testing on a weekly basis. So people who came in and out of the campus would be drawn randomly or not, people who worked in the community. We do have some students who have part-time jobs in the community. So those individuals would have been drawn for random testing on a weekly basis.

Glenn: Did you have to reprimand or were fines in place for students who maybe tried to sneak off-campus or bring someone into the campus? What was in place for them?

Artis: We did not believe that fining would be an ample punishment for not following our protocols for safety, as this is an issue of life-and-death. And so we had two who willfully violated our rules by entering the quarantine area to visit a sick friend. Those individuals were suspended and that occurred in the first week or so of class because we wanted to make an example very quickly. So people understood this was a zero-tolerance policy.

Glenn: Do you know how students fared with this in terms of some campuses have reported that students have had anxiety, depression because they have been kind of on lockdown on their campuses? Those that have done bubbles like this. Did you have counselors of people in place to help them weather this?

Artis: We did. We recognized that mental health is a significant issue in the wake of COVID-19. Both for students who are on the campus and for those who unfortunately were not able to come back to campus for myriad reasons. We do have a full-time counselor on the campus of Bennett College, really listening and allowing students to express themselves and share their feelings.

We did have a couple of activities that we spread out in our football stadium. For example, we had a movie night outdoors. It's an 11,000-seat stadium, so we were able to spread our kids out. So we really tried to compensate for the isolation of COVID-19.

Glenn: To other schools, especially those that are not gated like Benedict or are larger than Benedict what advice do you have?

Artis: The most critical aspect of our safety plan really was universal testing. You cannot guarantee a safe environment unless you are frequently testing the population to ensure that asymptomatic carriers are not spreading the virus. If students are tested regularly and quarantined appropriately and activities are kept to a minimum, I think we are smart enough in higher education to facilitate a safe experience for students.

Benedict College President Roslyn Clark Artis says for the spring semester, they will have a mix of in-person and remote classes, with the bubble in effect for those on campus.

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