Delaware State University officials vowed before fall semester began that the way it would handle bringing students back to campus during the COVID-19 pandemic would set a national example, and they seem to have fulfilled that prediction.
Delaware’s Historically Black College and University announced Wednesday that it’s had near record enrollment for the fall semester, record numbers of online students and will have a record number of graduates.
In addition, four other HBCUs have investigated how DSU did it, and a dozen of other school testing officers have checked in with DSU’s testing organizer about best practices.
“The students, faculty and staff of Delaware State University have shown the nation that a Historically Black College or University can be an unparalleled leader in keeping students on campus safely during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said President Tony Allen. “Thanks to the tireless work of volunteers from across campus, we conducted over 35,000 COVID tests, with an unmatched positive rate of 0.4%.”
Allen credited much of the success to active student cooperation.
“You did that,” he told them in a pre-Thanksgiving letter. “I could go on ‘The Today Show,’ ‘GMA3,’ ‘Nightline’ and CNN to tell your story because you wore your masks, you socially distanced, and you cooperated with contact tracing when we did have positive test results.”
Students who may have been exposed were moved to special quarantine dorms to avoid the virus being passed on.
DSU’s success at keeping the novel coronavirus at bay also drew headlines like this Oct. 15 one on the Diverse Issues in Higher Education website: “Trump, Notre Dame President Should Follow Delaware State’s Tony Allen.”
“We’re very proud of what we have been able to accomplish this semester,” said DSU spokesman Carlos Holmes. “We appreciate being able to have others learn from what we’re doing. We’re proud that we’re able to help higher education.”
The university’s enrollment totaled 5,027 students for the fall semester, just 27 shy of their record-breaking previous year. In contrast, the University of Delaware — which has a much larger enrollment — missed its freshmen enrollment goal for the fall semester by 17% and had only a fraction of students return to dorms once most classes were moved online.
DSU will hit a record of 608 graduate students and 230 online students this semester, the school said Wednesday.
At the same time, about 1,769 students returned to the Dover campus during the fall semester, even with classes online or in a hybrid mode. It typically has had more than 2,200 students.
Since July, the campus has done 35,375 tests on students and employees in cooperation with the Testing for American partnership. Every student and staff member on the campus was required to get tested weekly.
Out of all of these tests, there was only 143 positive COVID-19 cases on the campus this semester, which included 131 students and 12 employees. Only 36 of the students were symptomatic and five faculty/staff members.
Of the positive cases, 62 came in November as numbers nationwide were rising. That means the university only had 81 positive cases from August through October. In addition, the November numbers were beginning to trend down as the month went on.
The school’s COVID-19 positivity case rate of 0.4% drew national media attention.
“What we learned this semester was that having weekly mandatory tests with shorter turnaround times allows you to contact trace faster,” Holmes said. “If you can have that, then you can manage and maintain having students on campus.”
The school also implemented mandatory mask wearing, social distancing and the elimination of on-campus events involving large gatherings.
The semester was not without its trials: One student died at a big off-campus party that was not sanctioned by the university, sending a shock through the system.
On Nov. 25, a majority of students living on campus went home to complete their semesters online. Only 200 students, who are mostly athletes, international students and students with extenuating circumstances, remain on the campus.
Students return to campus on Jan. 19, and DSU plans to have a slightly larger number of students there for spring, as well as a larger number of face-to-face courses.
DSU plans to continue the weekly testing and COVID-19 regulations for the spring semester, and will not require students to have a COVID-19 vaccination.
“I don’t think we’ll require them; many places are still trying figure out the logistics of distribution for the vaccine,” Holmes said. “We just have to wait and see what happens. We have a bit of a challenge ahead of us.”
Allen, who has been vocal about working to raise both the reputation of DSU and the quality of work, students and graduates, will be in the limelight for the next few months as CEO of the Presidential Inaugural Committee for President-elect Joe Biden.
Holmes said he does not expect that to result in a big boom of students who become interested in DSU after seeing its president have a high profile national role.
“What Tony Allen is doing is in a personal capacity,” Holmes said. “If that has a collateral effect on boosting our enrollment, that would be great, but we don’t expect it.”