Temple University received praise from Philadelphia city officials in March for transforming the Liacouras Center, a multipurpose facility home to the Owl’s men’s basketball team, into a makeshift surge hospital for COVID-19 patients, aimed at relieving pressure on crowded city hospitals.
Mayor Jim Kenney commended Temple again last week, but for a different reason: the university shifted its plan for offering a hybrid of in-person and online classes for the fall semester as COVID-19 cases among Temple students and employees surged from 10 to 318 in the first two weeks of classes.
“Temple is a shining jewel in our city, and I hope all Philadelphians will support the university and their students as they work through this period,” Kenney said.
The decision to suspend in-person learning was not unexpected. In its initial announcement, Temple said it was prepared to move the semester online at any moment.
“We’ve said all along that if the circumstances required, we would move to do exactly what it is that we’ve done, and clearly the circumstances required it,” said Ray Betzner, a spokesperson for the university.
As COVID-19 cases plateaued in Philadelphia throughout the summer, Temple stood firm in its choice to bring students back to campus even as other local schools, including the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and La Salle University, made last-minute decisions to close on-campus housing and hold nearly all classes online.
All of that changed Thursday.
Since the announcement, students have expressed a mixture of anger, fear and relief. Regardless of their position on the university’s decision to reopen, many are upset the pandemic has further disrupted their college experience.
On Sept. 7, Temple reported 350 active COVID-19 cases. How did it get here?
The initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of thousands of schools and universities across the United States in March. Temple was among the last Philadelphia-area schools and the last state-related school in Pennsylvania to announce its closure on March 11, requiring those in campus housing to leave within 10 days.
In shock, students who were able to leave campus scrambled to return home as stay-at-home orders went into effect and the region entered what became a two-month-long partial lockdown to slow the spread of the virus.
Three days after Temple’s closure, the university reported its first COVID-19 case: a student who lived off campus and had traveled to Spain over spring break. Before students returned to campus for the fall, 35 people at the university tested positive for COVID-19 between March 10 and Aug. 10.
As Philadelphia approached its peak of COVID-19 cases in April, Temple, in Kenney’s words, “stepped up.” The Liacouras Center’s makeshift surge hospital opened on April 16, operating for two weeks and admitting 14 patients in total, Billy Penn reported.
Though most of the facility’s 200 beds went unoccupied, Kenney said it was “better to build it and they don’t come than to not build it at all,” Billy Penn reported.
The peak passed. In May, Temple announced it convened a team of representatives from across the university to meet daily and plan out scenarios for Summer II and Fall 2020 semesters.
In June, Temple announced its plan to reopen Main Campus in phases throughout the summer and resume some in-person instruction in the fall. Based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Temple outlined its four public health pillars for reopening: wearing face coverings, social distancing, frequent hand-washing and health monitoring.
“I am confident we can open on time as a residential university, and operate in a way that reduces the risks to our community’s health while continuing to offer quality educational experiences to our students,” Englert said in the announcement.
Beginning on June 23, the university offered virtual courses and a few in-person courses for the Summer II semester as a test run for reopening in the fall.
Meanwhile, Temple installed safety measures across campus, like plexiglass barriers and hand sanitizer dispensers, in accordance with its four public health pillars and the city’s COVID-19 reopening plan, which moved into a modified green phase on July 3.
LOOKING TO REOPENING
When the Summer II semester ended on Aug. 11, Philadelphia was reporting 124 new COVID-19 cases a week on average. That day, Penn announced its plans to close student housing for the fall semester after moving almost all undergraduate fall classes online on July 31. Drexel and La Salle soon followed, announcing plans to transition classes online on Aug. 19 and 20, respectively.
Temple’s push to bring students back to campus soon generated outcry from students and faculty who organized protests in the weeks leading to the start of the semester and on the first day of classes. Protestors expressed concerns for the safety of the community and themselves.
Temple maintained that students said they wanted to be back on campus if it could be done safely, citing survey responses from students, faculty and staff.
Move-in for campus housing began on Aug. 17. Students moving into residence halls or traveling from states with large COVID-19 outbreaks were tested at the Aramark Student Training and Recreation Center. Those who tested positive could either go home or stay in an isolation room in Johnson and Hardwick Halls for at least 10 days.
“Our primary goal is to protect the health and safety of the Temple community,” said Mark Denys, director of Student Health Services, in an announcement on Aug. 13.
Temple Student Government called on Temple to close campus housing and transition to online classes on Aug. 21, three days before classes commenced.
“As Temple students, it is imperative to recognize that we are guests in the North Philadelphia community,” TSG wrote in the statement.
Nationwide, the dominoes began to fall. Several schools that also reopened for the fall semester, including the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, the University of Notre Dame and James Madison University, were forced to end or pause in-person classes due to rising COVID-19 cases on their campuses.
After the first week of Temple’s classes, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health advised local college students to avoid gatherings outside of their households in light of rising COVID-19 case counts. Temple then instructed students to not attend any social gatherings beginning Aug. 29.
“Anything we can do to get Temple students to stop the spread of COVID between Temple students is something we wholeheartedly support,” said James Garrow, a PDPH spokesperson.
On Aug. 30, with 103 reported active COVID-19 cases on campus, Temple announced it would suspend in-person instruction for two weeks and evaluate the safest way to continue the fall semester. Two days later, Philadelphia’s health commissioner Thomas Farley called the spike in cases at Temple an “outbreak.”
“We are working closely with the city on our efforts regarding COVID-19,” Betzner wrote in an email to The Temple News on Sept. 1. “This is a serious situation and we are taking serious actions.”
Then, on Sept. 3, with 212 active COVID-19 cases on campus, Temple announced nearly all courses would remain online for the rest of the semester. Students living in campus housing could remain for the rest of the semester but receive a full housing and meal plan refund if they moved out by Sept. 13.
“Please know that if the data supported a decision to safely continue the fall semester experience on campus, we would have made every effort to do so,” Englert and Epps wrote in the announcement. “Unfortunately, the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic are simply too great for our students, faculty, staff and neighboring community.”
On Sept. 3, Farley said all Temple students living off campus should return to where they lived over the summer if possible. Temple provided free COVID-19 testing to students choosing to leave campus on Sept. 5 through Sept. 7 at the Aramark STAR Complex.
“Many people don’t have the greatest places to return to and might be safer in university housing,” said Robert Bettiker, a professor at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine.
Joseph Crespo, a senior human resources major, said he was not surprised when Temple moved online.
“We all assumed it was going to happen, and it was kind of just like a ticking time bomb,” Crespo said.
“The decisions that were made were not in the interest of the greater Philadelphia community, and in the interest of the public health of our own Temple community,” said Student Body President Quinn Litsinger, a junior political science major.
Contact tracing has shown many of Temple’s COVID-19 cases come from students who are living in apartments off campus and are hosting social gatherings, Farley said on Sept. 1.
“We are in a highly residential, compact place with lots of people,” said Jackie Wiggins, a resident who lives on 20th Street near Diamond. “I’m glad they went fully online, but I really think that should have been the decision in the first place.”
City Council President Darrell Clarke, who represents the Fifth Council District, supported Temple’s decision to halt in-person classes, he wrote in an email to The Temple News.
“The significant increase in positive COVID-19 test results among students is very concerning to me, to parents and families and to the entire North Philadelphia community nearby,” Clarke wrote.
State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a 2012 strategic communication alumnus whose district encompasses Main Campus, stands with Temple’s faculty, staff and students in their efforts to be heard, he wrote in an email to The Temple News.
Students were seen moving out of residence halls over Labor Day weekend. Freshmen in particular struggled with the decision of where to live, grappling with whether they should return home only weeks after arriving.
“I am excited for when things go back to normal to actually get the real college experience,” said Sabrina Pulli, a freshman psychology major.
Because most infections among students have been traced to those living off campus, who may be tied up in leases, it is unclear how the suspension of in-person classes will affect the number of cases associated with Temple.
“I’m glad the university has seen the wisdom of moving to mostly, almost all online courses,” said Wende Marshall, an intellectual heritage instructor. “But the fact remains that there are [COVID-19] clusters around Temple, and that makes me sad and worried.”