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16 minute read

A Way Forward

Alesha Griffo, a junior physician assistant major, admits to being nervous as she returned to campus in late July.

“I was concerned with being with so many people,” she said. “One thing that helped me was being a transition guide and hearing everything the university was doing – masks and cleaning and even the new plan for Waldron (Campus Center). It felt like it was all thought out.”

By mid-November, she said, “I don’t feel like this is an inconvenience to me whatsoever. Being here, I have no worries.”

Griffo, like others, settled into a routine defined by precautions against COVID-19.

Leading up to the semester, Gannon faculty and staff had mobilized to prepare for students’ safe return to campus, resulting in a detailed plan that outlined modifications around classroom learning, housing and dining, and social interactions.

As part of those plans, students, staff and faculty wore their masks, kept their distance and submitted daily health screenings via the LiveSafe app. They also adjusted to temperature screenings in key buildings and offices.

Students wear their masks on campus as part of the university’s comprehensive safety measures. 

Some faculty elected to teach remotely, but more than 75% of all courses were taught face-to-face this fall, more than at most schools that opened. Each classroom featured COVID-19- appropriate spacing, and some classes were moved to large open spaces to account for social distancing.

But the diligent work of our university has extended beyond that.

The following pages illustrate just what it took to reopen our university, by the numbers, as well as narratives of how our Gannon family has responded to the pandemic in meaningful ways.

A daily health survey via the LiveSafe app and digital thermometers are just two ways that Gannon effectively monitored health on campus this semester.

On campus, leaders have implemented a COVID-19 surveillance program that includes in-house screening and contact tracing to limit the spread of the virus. Others have taken innovative approaches to delivering education, like faculty who are using artificial emotional intelligence to bring student-teacher field work experiences directly to students’ laptops.

When Gannon’s Small Business Development Center saw increasing economic challenges, it leveraged entrepreneurial resources to help local small businesses. Alumni are also humbly stepping forward, like Julie Kleber, a nurse in a New York City hospital who recently shared valuable insights with Gannon nursing faculty and students.

But there is still much work to be done.

Gannon's classrooms have been rearranged to allow for social distancing.

The semester ended on a few weeks earlier than normal on Nov. 24. The hope is that faculty and staff will use the longer break to refocus after a unique semester that featured a compressed schedule with few days off. Everyone will have to rest up, too, because a similar plan has been made for the spring semester, which begins Jan. 25.

Griffo said she is planning to be back in January.

“I have a big level of respect for the university,” she said. “I feel safe.”

COVID-19 RESPONSE What it took to reopen our university, by the numbers

IMPLEMENTED ON-CAMPUS COVID-19 SURVEILLANCE AND CONTACT TRACING PROGRAMS

Gannon processed 5,775 COVID-19 test samples from students, staff and faculty at its Erie campus and another 403 at the Ruskin campus. University employees had also actively traced all associated close contacts of known positives in the Gannon population.

ADDED A DAILY COVID QUESTIONNAIRE TO LIVESAFE

Our LiveSafe public safety app was upgraded to include a COVID-19 questionnaire and other resources related to the disease. In total, 205,764 surveys have been completed since the semester start date of Aug. 10. The campus Health Center followed up with 1,850 users in Erie and Ruskin who reported exposure to or were experiencing symptoms attributed of COVD-19 (fortunately, most of these proved not to be COVID-19).

INSTALLED TEMPERATURE SCANNING STATIONS ON CAMPUS

Thermal imaging temperature checkpoints were placed in key locations across the Erie and Ruskin campuses as a way to provide fast, accurate, no-touch measurements of body temperatures. In total, 68 volunteers logged a combined total of 3,904 hours to scan more than 6,000 employees and students for fevers.

CREATED A WEBSITE FOR COVID-19-RELATED UPDATES

Gannon’s COVID-19 webpage generated 43,341 pageviews since its launch on March 13. Seventy-three communications and 35 policy documents have been shared via the webpage, emails and social media to keep the Gannon and Erie communities informed. More than 650 questions and comments were received and answered via the COVID-19 question submission form.

MOBILIZED FOR OUR GANNON COMMUNITY AND FOR ERIE

Gannon’s Morosky College of Health Professions and Sciences faculty donated 425 face masks, 93 goggles, 60 mask and shield combinations, 72 N95 masks, 36 cases of gloves, 728 pairs of surgical gloves, and 196 isolation gowns as well as offered and loaned ventilators and ventilator equipment and circuits to local hospitals.

Gannon employees produced 6,000 3D-printed face shields with support from the Erie and Gannon communities to alleviate shortages of protective equipment among COVID-19 frontline workers.

The university launched a campaign that resulted in nearly $20,000 in emergency funding from 249 donors to alleviate student needs associated with COVID-19. The funds supported 180 students in Erie and Ruskin with food and housing assistance, domestic and international travel expenses, and resources for remote learning. Gannon employees assembled and distributed more than 4,500 Welcome Kits containing essential supplies to students, faculty and staff upon their return to campus with support from 235 donors who provided $55,247.

FACILITATED A CUSTOM SIGNAGE ROLLOUT

The university printed 19,400 stickers, 5,414 vinyl decals, and 4,000 table tents that were custom-designed with messaging around social-distancing, practicing healthy behaviors and following new traffic patterns that help maintain low density. A significant portion of the signage is displayed in key areas across the Erie and Ruskin campuses.

UPGRADED TECHNOLOGY IN OUR CLASSROOMS

Gannon ITS installed 148 high-end web cameras in classrooms across the Erie and Ruskin campuses to permit simultaneous in-class and remote delivery options to our students. A total of 125 laptops, 34 webcams and 40 Verizon mobile internet hotspots were purchased for and/or loaned to employees and students in need of adequate resources for virtual work and learning. Gannon ITS also provided 772 basic Zoom licenses to accommodate for virtual meetings. In total, 529 work orders were completed by ITS in the last two full weeks of March alone.

The Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning facilitated 201 training workshops for 789 participants to focus on remote delivery of educations and assessments.

GOT BACK ON THE FIELD

Gannon Athletics devised a Return-to-Play plan that led to 691 student-athletes and 24 teams logging a combined 2,410 hours of practice, training and other team activities, despite limited opportunities for intercollegiate competition.

Gannon University is one of only a few schools in the nation to implement an in-house COVID-19 surveillance program as part of its approach to keeping students and employees safe and on campus.

Steven Mauro, Ph.D., vice president of strategies and campus operations at Gannon, recalled being mid-run when he realized Gannon had the necessary equipment and expertise to make both on-campus COVID-19 screening and contact tracing a reality.

Mauro, who holds a doctoral degree in microbiology with a focus on virology, immediately set to work on establishing the program.

“This involved many late nights in the lab doing proof of principle studies and then validating those results with clinically certified labs,” Mauro said. The machine he used to test samples was originally purchased by the university a few years back for classroom research.

Austin Hertel, a senior biology major, tests samples in the lab as part of the university’s COVID-19 surveillance program. 

"I had over 20 of my own nasal swabs that I used during that time. Eventually, we generated enough positive and negative results that we felt the lab procedure was validated and ready to use,” Mauro said. And since students have returned in late July, the university has used those procedures to conduct extensive COVID-19 screening with results available in less than 24 hours. At the end of October, nearly 5,000 samples had been processed with the average of tests climbing above 400 per week and a positivity rate of only 1%, Mauro said.

The experience I’m gaining here with this work is invaluable,” Hertel said. “I’ve gotten experience with molecular biology, virology and public health all while a pandemic is raging across the world.

“A major benefit of us screening on our own campus is that we can get accurate, affordable results that are guaranteed to be returned in less than 24 hours,” Mauro said. “The faster turnaround time allows us to identify and isolate positive individuals very quickly. This has helped us keep contacts very low, which is part of the reason why our positivity rate has been so manageable.”

Raechel Miller, an employee in Gannon’s marketing department, oversees the university tracing program and emphasized its role in monitoring the prevalence of COVID-19 on campus.

“Gannon is being proactive in the fact that we’re going out looking for positives. We’re actively seeking people who may be asymptomatic positive and would not normally be caught any other way except through our surveillance testing of identified populations and random groups on campus each week,” Miller said.

Miller said the COVID-19 program also involves screening employees and students who report symptoms through the university’s LiveSafe app or through the Health Center.

Miller also leads in-house contact tracing efforts to quarantine any close contacts associated with a positive case.

“We definitely have an advantage doing our own internal tracing. Once we have a positive case, we’re able to get all close contacts into quarantine a lot faster than if they were being traced by the county,” Miller said.

The university also implemented a care program to provide meals and other essential items to those students who are quarantining.

Gannon’s COVID-19 surveillance program is not only keeping students safe, but it has given a few students invaluable hands-on experience, as well.

Austin Hertel, a senior biology major, goes to the lab every afternoon to test the samples available that day. For Hertel, that involves extracting genetic material from the sample and cycling it through a machine to test for the virus. A computer interprets and displays the results.

Hertel said he has always been interested in working with infectious diseases but had no idea what doors would open until his epidemiology professor, MJ Taylor, Ph.D., assistant professor of public health, connected him to Mauro.

“The experience I’m gaining here with this work is invaluable,” Hertel said. “I’ve gotten experience with molecular biology, virology and public health all while a pandemic is raging across the world. I’ve gotten to see just how much work goes into managing a public health crisis from an institutional perspective.”

Mauro said the university has purchased additional equipment, hired a laboratory technician and is applying for laboratory certification that would extend testing services to other community partners.

“This will help not only keep Gannon safe, but our whole community,” Mauro said.

The COVID-19 shutdowns forced many small regional companies to pivot to meet new consumer markets and ways of operating – and many with help from Gannon’s Small Business Development Center.

Maggie Horne, director of Gannon’s SBDC, said the center recognized early on that it would be needed.

“We began getting calls from businesses asking if we had any idea what would happen,” Horne said of just before the lockdown. “There was a lot of uncertainty and panic in the minds of many small businesses. Then the shutdown hit – and very quickly.”

The SBDC remained open as an essential business, using its resources and some government funds to support businesses across Erie, Crawford, Mercer and Warren counties throughout the pandemic.

The SBDC’s early initiative was to connect businesses with state and federal government resources.

“We fielded hundreds of calls in those first couple of weeks,” Horne said. “As a partner of the U.S. Small Business Administration, we are seen as a resource that can directly assist small businesses – but now more so in this time of disaster.”

The SBDC also offered webinars with organizations like U.S. Small Business Administration to educate businesses in navigating the shutdown.

Recently, the SBDC received a $300,000 CARES Grant from the Erie County government to assist Erie small businesses. The grant helped form a Tech Team to provide one-on-one assistance in website development, social media and other digital tools as businesses adapt to an online presence.

The funds were also shared with Erie small businesses as direct grants of between $1,000 and $5,000 to use to develop their digital presence.

The funding is just a portion of more than $2.2 million in COVID-19-related financial aid that the SBDC was able to help businesses obtain.

Horne said she’s sees a broader opportunity for businesses as a result of the pandemic.

“Businesses will now have the ability to do business in more ways than one,” Horne said. “Consumer behavior has shifted online, and for businesses to be able to serve those consumers, that is a very positive area of growth from what is otherwise a pretty dire situation.”

The Gannon SBDC is part of a statewide network of 16 centers and more than 75 community outreach offices and a national network of more than 1,100 centers, providing educational programming and no-cost consulting to entrepreneurs and small businesses throughout Northwest Pennsylvania.

Horne said the COVID-19 crisis has really solidified the purpose of the SBDC.

“We’ve really been able to showcase what the SBDC can do for the small business community and bring awareness of who we are,” Horne said. “We’ve been focused on our mission of helping small businesses in our communities, and we are hopeful that what we did assisted small businesses in ways that were impactful.”

Julie Kleber ’11BSN, RN, BMTCN was working as a nurse at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City when her Bone Marrow Transplant Unit was suddenly converted into a COVID-19 care unit.

“The uncertainty of that time was, in a word, overwhelming,” Kleber said.

Like many across the nation, Kleber found herself suddenly donning personal protective equipment to confront surging infections.

Julie Kleber wearing full personal protective equipment as she confronts infections in the hospital.

“I had to own that (my patients) were not only being treated for cancer but now have acquired a virus during a pandemic, were not allowed to have visitors, and I was the only source of contact,” Kleber said. “That weighed heavily on my soul.”

The experience has left a lasting impression that Kleber shared with Gannon nursing faculty and students during the virtual Villa Maria School of Nursing Distinguished Alumni Lecture Series on Oct. 1 in a presentation titled “Lessons from the Bedside: Adaptability and Intentionality.”

“How you go about being intentional with others and how well you lean into adaptability will determine your ability to thrive, no matter what situation you’re thrown into,” Kleber told her audience.

Intentionality, for Kleber, meant being careful about what she brought into a COVID-19 patients’ room or limiting her own risk of exposure. But it also meant recognizing her patient as a person.

Julie Kleber (right) with her friends and coworkers, Jenny Tran, BA, BSN, RN, BMTCN (left), and Lilly Reilly, MSN, RN, OCN (middle).

“We all know the numbers, the statistics, the bed counts, the ICU headroom,” Kleber said. “But as a nurse, we know that the bed occupies a person, and we treat them holistically as a person. That’s what we learn as a Gannon nursing student. Be intentional with your actions and treat your patients as people.”

Kleber also encouraged students to be adaptable in their mindset and approach, walking them through a case study that positioned them as charge nurses on shift as the first patient in their unit tested positive for COVID-19. “No one knows how this has spread,” Kleber said. “This person has already been on your unit for days. Your nurse leader is out sick, and the entire country is going to close the borders. Things are changing every hour, especially the infection control protocols.”

So, what happens then?

“As a nurse, you act,” Kleber said. “And you realize you were made for this. You learn to adapt. You actually learn that you’ve been adapting in your personal life, in nursing school and your early career. It’s now just apparent what that all means and why you had to go through it.”

Kleber reflected on lessons learned from her patients. “We ask our patients every day what their goal is for the day. Sometimes their goals change as their situations change. You adapt and adjust to provide the best outcomes for all of your patients that day.”

As a nurse, you act,” Kleber said. “And you realize you were made for this. You learn to adapt. You actually learn that you’ve been adapting in your personal life, in nursing school and your early career. It’s now just apparent what that all means and why you had to go through it.

Kleber ended her presentation by encouraging students to consider their levels of intentionality and adaptability that would determine their ability to thrive as future nurses. Kleber also offered further insight into the nursing profession and her experiences amid the pandemic during a question-and-answer session with students.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many things unexpected – and for some in Gannon’s education department that includes opportunity.

Samantha Saur, an early childhood and special education major at Gannon, anticipated spending her junior year in education fieldwork placements at local Erie schools.

Instead, she’s among 40 Gannon students who are completing their fieldwork directly from laptops using artificial emotional intelligence technologies.

Samantha Saur, a junior in early childhood and special education, used artificial emotional intelligence technologies to complete her education "fieldwork."

Janice Whiteman, director of the School of Education, said the pandemic created challenges to in-person fieldwork.

“We were planning for the fall semester since April and at that time school districts weren’t sure what they were doing, if they would be in-person or online,” Whiteman said. “We started our semester on Aug. 10, and the earliest that any school district was back even doing remote learning was the very end of August.”

That is when Whiteman and her team decided to use simSchool, a web-based virtual classroom environment where students apply classroom knowledge through online teaching experiences.

Whiteman explained that students using simSchool can practice teaching strategies by interacting with a classroom of “simStudents,” who use artificial emotional intelligence to respond in individual ways to Gannon students’ teaching by raising their hands, becoming frustrated and showing other positive and negative behaviors. Students can also customize their teaching experience by interacting specifically with simStudents of diverse backgrounds or who have individual learning needs, for example.

A class can also be taught multiple times so students can modify teaching strategies while observing the impact on simStudents – opportunities Whiteman said “are not possible within a live setting.”

Students receive digital reports of their lesson performances, but faculty have also added a supervision component to provide student feedback just as they would in a standard fieldwork placement.

Pam Baldwin, a Gannon adjunct lecturer, monitors students’ lesson performances and meets with them regularly to discuss progress. Baldwin said that while simSchool is not the traditional classroom, it is still a valuable experience.

“If students look beyond just fulfilling their hours and approach like a learning lab, then they are able to experiment with how material is presented, how they interact with students, and (how) the students respond,” Baldwin said. “At the end of each class, they can see both academic and emotional growth of the students. They can evaluate the results and make adaptations for the next class.”

For students like Saur, this has been a great advantage.

“I feel more confident with classroom behavior management through teaching the modules in simSchool,” Saur said. “SimSchool has given me the opportunity to practice my teaching strategies virtually, such as working with students in a diverse background, observing behaviors, and differentiating instruction to fit the needs of the students. All these skills are essential to teaching in a classroom.”