University President Dr. Michael Mittelman hosted a virtual town hall at the end of October with Salus leadership to address questions from the University community about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the school and what the future holds for Salus.
University officials included:
Q: When are we going back to normal?
Dr. Mittelman: We're going to go back to normal when it's safe to go back to normal. It's going to be after we have a vaccine. And of course, nobody knows when that's going to be. But we're going to be watching the landscape as we have been to ensure that it is safe to return to normal. How do you define normal? I think we'll be wearing masks for a long time. I think we'll be socially distancing – just to be safe – for a long time.
As we look at upcoming semesters, including next winter and spring, we're going to continue to operate under the current Salus Safety Strategy for the winter and spring semesters, which means hybrid classes, in-place labs, clinic socially distanced, those things won't change.
Q: What are we doing for spring commencement?
Dr. Mittelman: My gestalt right now tells me that it will likely be a virtual event, but I'm not going to go out on the limb, and say, "It's definitely going to be virtual." I'm going to wait until I really feel more comfortable with what's going on with the vaccine and everything else before we make an ultimate decision about commencement.
We've put a dashboard up on the University’s website, showing the self-reported testing results. We've had a lot of people self-report, which is fabulous. We've had several instances where we've had possible exposures, and we've had individuals self-quarantining. And, we've only had a couple of positive cases, and they've been really quickly contained because people isolated, and did what they're supposed to do. As of right now, we have no confirmed Salus community spread. And, as I look around the state and I talk to my colleagues, we're an outlier. There are tens or hundreds of cases in a lot of schools. At Salus, we have a very mature student body, which also helps.
Q: What is the University doing to increase diversity at Salus?
Dr. Mittelman: I'm really proud of the fact that we have taken this issue very seriously, and we're making some very positive moves, including the hiring of Juliana Mosley, PhD, who goes by “Dr. J.” She took on the role of our inaugural special assistant to the president for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). She's already weighed in on some of the written information to the University community and organized a post-election event. I’m thrilled to have her.
Robert E. Horne, MS, who served the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) and Salus University as vice president and dean of Student Affairs for 36 years, lent us his name for our revived Summer Enrichment Program (SEP). We received a $300,000 grant from National Vision & America's Best specifically for the SEP. Over the course of five years, that's going to allow us to recruit 50 students a year into the program. And these are students of color, students who come from underserved areas who we can expose to all of our programs and, hopefully, increase the diversity of each and every one of the programs. We will be working closely with Admissions and the DEI Committee as we move forward.
In addition, as many of you know, we recently signed an Articulation Agreement with Hampton University, which is one of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), in Norfolk, Virginia. We're also going to be contacting HBCUs local to the Philadelphia community with hopes of establishing more Articulation Agreements.
If we're going to really start to affect the diversity of optometry, OT, audiology, SLP and physician assistant specialties, we really need to start working with the HBCUs, recruiting students early. And augmenting that, we're starting to work with high school students for the Summer Enrichment Program as well as students who are a little older. That really can help increase the exposure and we're hoping that can move the needle for us.
Q: Has the pandemic put any of the University’s future plans on hold?
Dr. Mittelman: As we talk about all these things that are going on, the future is not on hold. We would be remiss if we weren't looking out over the horizon. Many of you have heard me say this before, we are moving forward with the Master of Science in Orthotics and Prosthetics. We've been working with consultants. We've submitted a state grant for any of the construction projects. We've already put together some preliminary architectural plans, and we've already been awarded candidacy status by their accreditation group, the National Commission on Orthotics and Prosthetics Education (NCOPE).
Our Middle States accreditation is also moving forward. They will be here the week of October 24, 2021. Dr. Jenna Templeton from Chatham University is going to be the chair. She's the VP for Academic Affairs. And if you Google Chatham, they look a lot like us with the exception of optometry.
Also, the construction of the patient simulation lab is complete. I think as all of the programs start to figure out how they're going to use the lab, it's going to be a real boon for education. They've done a wonderful job of designing it, and a great job putting it together. I'm excited about seeing students using it.
Q: Are we going to require the students to quarantine after the winter break, before they come back to campus?
Dr. Mittelman: Right now, no. I'm going to ask them to do the responsible thing. If people believe they have been exposed, or they believe they have potentially been exposed, I will ask that they quarantine or show me three negative tests. But otherwise, no, I'm going to rely on people to do exactly what they did when they came to campus at the beginning of this semester.
Q: Students are struggling, can anyone speak to what Student Affairs plans to do to engage students?
Dr. Barry Eckert: I’m actually talking with each of the departments this week about several issues about students struggling. Part of that conversation is about what departments and programs might consider doing to engage students further. But I'm not diverting away from student affairs, which is what the question is. And, in fact, they're starting to put together some plans for some additional activities that can be done virtually, or on campus with appropriate social distancing. So we're working on it. We don’t have a program fully designed yet, but it is in the works, because it’s an important aspect of what the students are going through at this point in time.
Q: Can you speak to the job that IT, facilities and security have done to keep us up and running as we work from home, and safe upon return to campus?
Brian Zuckerman: Obviously, we've increased facility staff primarily in the cleaning area, and we've increased the number of guards we have as well to make sure that the physical spaces are cleaned in between uses, and to make sure that access to campus goes relatively smoothly, including our screening processes as well as security walking around, and reminding folks to maintain the Salus Safety Strategy.
And, then with the IT perspective, they're doing work both here and remote, and have been working very closely, primarily with the programs to make sure that, one, the instructional technology has pivoted, but also so individual faculty members and staff have remote access.
Dr. Mittelman: Even at an early hour, people would be at the help desk, making sure that things worked. Although it doesn’t always work perfectly, I think they’ve done a great job. And, for the facilities piece, people came in and put a lot of time and effort into the facility. In fact, if you see something that's not working, let us know. But I think the support staff has done a remarkable job of keeping all of our systems up and running. For VPN, it's been pretty much seamless. And, I know I've worked from home a few days without any issues.
Dr. Eckert: And I can just add observations over the last several months, there've been a fair number of occasions when faculty have either had the equipment problems or haven't had the appropriate equipment at home to do their work. IT has responded very quickly to buy computers, laptops, or whatever people needed that were failing at home, and weren't functioning properly. So they've done an extraordinary job of keeping everybody up and running.