Newswise — ST. LOUIS — Saint Louis University has successfully wrapped up its 2020-2021 academic year — one that brought unprecedented challenges due to a global pandemic — without having to suspend its commitment to mostly in-person classes, entirely in-person labs and on-campus living. 

“Every member of our Saint Louis University community should be proud of all we have accomplished this past year, much of which many thought impossible a year ago,” said University President Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D. “The pandemic tested us, and we pulled together and rose to the challenges as One SLU.”

Pestello continued: “I have heard from many students and parents about how well SLU communicated with them and how positive it was to them that we kept our campus open and taught primarily in person.” 

But why was SLU able to keep its campus open at a time when other colleges across the country were being forced to shelter in place, suspend in-person classes or move completely online?

Among many other factors, University officials point to a decision early in the crisis to engage SLU’s experts and solicit them to lead the University’s response to COVID-19, including three uniquely qualified faculty members:

  • Terri Rebmann, Ph.D., R.N., CIC, FAPIC, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, and director of SLU’s Institute for Biosecurity, served as a special assistant to the president with overarching authority on all matters related to COVID-19. Rebmann has been at the center of the University’s integrated COVID-prevention team. 
  • Rachel Charney, M.D., professor of pediatric emergency medicine and director of disaster preparedness for SLU’s School of Medicine and SLUCare, directed the University’s contact tracing program. The team’s quick work prevented extensive community spread as approximately 40 percent of quarantined students ultimately tested positive for COVID.
  • Deborah Horton, R.N., M.S.N., M.P.H., PHNA-BC, assistant professor of nursing and expert on disaster preparedness in schools, directed SLU’s weekly asymptomatic testing program, which conducted more than 22,000 COVID-19 tests. She also has overseen the University’s state-authorized vaccine clinics, which have vaccinated more than 13,300 people to date.

The three experts agree SLU was well-positioned to succeed in the fight against COVID-19 as a Jesuit research university with medical, nursing, physician assistant, and public health schools and programs, as well as its own physician practice.

“We have expertise at Saint Louis University that is just not available at other universities,” said Rebmann, who also coordinated weekly meetings of area college officials and local health department leaders.

“And we worked together as a team to address what we needed,” added Charney, who helped organize similar sessions among the region’s health systems. “We used our own strengths to support each other, which I think was awesome.”

And one of those strengths was the commitment of students to do their part. Beyond complying with SLU’s stringent public health safeguards, students contributed in many other ways. Chief among them:

  • Students from SLU’s Trudy Busch Valentine School of Nursing conducted weekly asymptomatic tests and staffed on-campus vaccination clinics. 
  • Physician assistant students from SLU’s Doisy College of Health Sciences also administered vaccinations.
  • Graduate students in the University’s College for Public Health and Social Justice served as the primary members of SLU’s contact tracing team.
  • Students from all majors conducted audits for compliance with campus safeguards and provided peer education as part of a Public Health Ambassadors program unique to SLU.
  • Students volunteered to deliver meals to their fellow Billikens in isolation and quarantine housing, while Campus Ministry interns made them care packages.

“There were many students throughout the University who helped provide whatever support we needed,” said Horton, who also helped organized vaccine clinics for parishioners from area churches and local refugees, among others. 

By the Numbers

  • Approximately 70-80% of classes at SLU this year were fully or primarily in-person.
  • More than 3,500 students of SLU’s 12,000-person student body lived on campus. SLU reduced its housing occupancy by about 10% in a plan approved by city health officials.
  • There were zero documented cases of disease transmission in classrooms, lab spaces or other educational settings on campus.
  • SLU stored more than 40,000 doses of vaccine on campus for the Missouri National Guard to support their mass vaccination efforts in the region.
  • Communication has been a priority during the pandemic, and University leaders have sent more than 150 updates to the SLU community since the crisis began last year. 

Planning for Fall 2021 

With broad vaccine availability, SLU is planning for as normal a fall semester as possible, operating largely face to face, with full classrooms and labs, as well as in-person events and near-capacity campus housing.

Working groups of faculty, staff and students have been tasked with developing recommendations for a variety of key decisions, including a possible vaccine requirement for University community members and “return-to-work” protocols. 

As recommendations are made and accepted, University officials say they expect to update the SLU community with additional information periodically throughout this summer. 

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