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Healthwatch 16: Geisinger helping universities plan

For some area colleges and universities, the school year has begun—exciting in a lot of ways, but this year there's added concern about COVID-19.

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — University communities are just getting the school year started. This fall, that start comes with a lot of worry and uncertainty amid the coronavirus pandemic.

We spoke with a few members of a group working to share ideas to keep everybody safe.

"Over the last several months, we've been developing strong relationships with many universities. We've developed scenarios with them in hopes of a safe return back to school," said Dr. Alison Brodginski, director of infectious diseases for Geisinger Northeast.

Dr. Brodginski has been part of a group of medical and university officials from schools all over the region that have been planning for this for months.

"We've focused on four main areas to help with some strategies for a safe return to school, primarily on masking, hand washing, social distancing, and personal responsibility."

Wilkes University President Greg Cant is among the collegiate officials taking part in the collaborative group.

"It has been nearly six months since we've been together. All of those fundamentals we talk about? How we interact with each other, how far apart we are. There's not a part of our endeavor that hadn't had to be reimagined," Cant said.

At Wilkes, Cant says nearly 1,000 students live on campus, so in addition to classroom work, the task force has helped him get better perspective about safety in residence halls, dining halls, and other larger group gathering spaces. In many cases, he says, Geisinger has provided valuable advice.

"There was a lot of discussion about testing, particularly asymptomatic testing, this notion that the answer was lots of testing, testing early, testing often. Geisinger was central in our realization that wasn't going to be the answer for reopening," said Cant.

Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine, with its students not living on campus, didn't have the same concerns. Still, President and Dean Dr. Steven Scheinman says they've been planning for students' return for months, too, everything from lesson plans to where people should stand in an elevator.

"In the middle of March, we made an abrupt pivot in just a few days to put our entire curriculum, including our clinical curriculum, online to make it virtual," Dr. Scheinman said. "We have mapped the entire building and identified the number of people that can be in each room for social distancing."

Members of the group say in many ways, their work has just begun, and there's no way to tell what will happen in the coming weeks, but they appreciate the Geisinger-led effort to keep campuses as safe as possible.

"It is important for all of us to come together. We're competitors in some very important ways, often students that come to an institution are from the same region. This is not a moment for competition. It's a moment for collaboration," Cant added.

Geisinger has a special resource page for schools looking for advice through the pandemic.