Academic Council Hears Report on Semester’s COVID Response Plan

Provost urges faculty to help rebuild campus community after pandemic isolation

During the semester’s first meeting of the Academic Council last Thursday, faculty heard how Duke’s data-driven approach to COVID would continue to drive campus pandemic policy in the coming year, an approach that has helped the university mitigate the effects of the disease and protect community health and safety during the pandemic.

But this year, in addition to figuring out how to maintain campus safety, university leaders also have to learn how to rebuild the community after two years of remote learning or working from home has weakened many of the social networks that help make a university effective.

COVID numbers are declining, said Provost Sally Kornbluth, but they’re not disappearing. As the disease moves from a pandemic to one that is endemic, the university faces a different challenge. 

“We’re at a point that we’re learning to live with virus, and we’re likely to have to live with it for some time to come,” Kornbluth said. “Our challenge now is how to rebuild our community. There are new faculty who have never interacted with some of their departmental colleagues. There are graduate students who don’t know some of their faculty.”

Kornbluth made a plea to faculty and others to come back to the campus, not just for classes, but to engage directly with colleagues, students and others who need their leadership and mentorship. 

She added that she understood that many faculty have continuing family needs or concerns that make them prefer to work at home. “We are working to try to get you the support you need to be here on campus,” Kornbluth said. “However, we can’t rebuild the university community without you. We need you to be part of a vibrant life on campus and to be here for each other, and for the students.”

At the meeting, three university officials updated faculty on the most recent data from the campus, state, country and the world and how that data shaped the current COVID-response policies.

Biology professor Steve Haase, one of a group of faculty member who have advised university leadership on COVID-response, said the COVID trends have been promising, even though Durham started the academic year listed as a high-risk area from the Centers for Disease Control.

“Cases are dropping globally,” Haase said. “I’m hard pressed to see any country where it’s facing a significant increase.” Global trends, he added, were important because they often provided early warning for COVID waves heading toward Durham.

In the U.S., COVID cases peaked in May and have been declining nationally since then, along with a decrease in disease severity, Haase said.

“The numbers are even better in heavily vaccinated communities such as Duke,” he added.

At Duke this semester, COVID numbers are currently “at the low end of what we saw last semester.” Haase said positive cases jumped — as expected — when students first returned, but the numbers quickly steadied and have declined in the past week. Meanwhile in Durham, a drop in overall cases indicates that the return of students to campus had no negative effect on the community, nor has there been any increase in faculty/staff cases, Haase said.

Other speakers were Dr. Carol Epling of Duke Employee Occupational Health and Wellness, and Paul Grantham, associate vice president in the Office of Communication Services, who outlined the university’s policies for the semester.

The university started the semester with a mandatory masking policy in classes because of the CDC risk assessment of the Durham area. In addition, university officials required returning students to take be tested prior to returning to campus, and the university maintained its successful surveillance testing program from previous years, although on a voluntary basis.

However, university officials say they will adapt their policies to the changing conditions, and as an example of how data is driving policy, the council meeting ended with an unusual bit of suspense: During the meeting the CDC was scheduled to release the weekly data indicating Durham’s COVID risk-level. If the level remained at medium for a second straight week, the university would remove the requirement for wearing masks in the classroom.

Smartphones were refreshed throughout the session, but the meeting ended without the data being released, and faculty left without knowing whether Durham had hit the hoped-for mark. Shortly afterwards the CDC data confirmed Durham maintained a medium level ranking, and Duke immediately announced that masks would be optional in classes beginning Thursday, Sept. 22.

There are caveats: faculty members may request that students continue to wear masks in their classrooms if they wish to do so, and masks will remain mandatory for all Duke transportation vehicles and in all clinical areas.