In part two of a regular series by The Franklin, Franklin College President Kerry Prather answers more questions about COVID-19 on campus from Co-Executive Editor Hope Shrum. They also address the hire of a vice president to oversee enrollment, a new head basketball coach and the education department.
The interview is outlined in the following transcript. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Hope Shrum: Can you give a status update on the education situation?
President Prather: No change since we talked last. We're still on pace for all of our submissions to the state for their consideration in April.
HS: Another question was about one of the new vice presidents, Thanda Maceo. What do you hope he will contribute to the community as we go along?
PP: We were so pleased with the hire because he actually has a unique background from the standpoint of having done enrollment management work at a number of different schools, including schools very much like Franklin, in senior level positions. But he also then has worked in the consulting realm of enrollment management, where he's gone around to even more schools, and provided support services for their enrollment management operation. So all of that, combined, is a huge resume of experience that we think is going to serve us extremely well in the admissions and financial aid realm. And then I would say, on a personal level, he brings a management style...that's just a really good fit for our team. He's got enough expertise to be very confident about the realm of the institution that he'll be responsible for. But he's very collaborative. very collegial. I think he's, I think he's just a perfect fit.
HS: How do you feel about Brian Lebowitz as he's taking your place as head men's basketball coach?
PP: I'm thrilled. And you know, Brian, turned down several opportunities to leave and could have advanced other places. And I said, when we appointed him, he is a rising star in the coaching profession. So our choice was to have that star rise someplace else, or to have it rise here. And he's very well prepared. I think he's going to do great. And my benchmark on coaching positions is would I want my son or daughter to play for him. And I absolutely would.
HS: So, to get to my main set of questions... Franklin College's website says that there were 16 new [COVID-19] cases from last week. And I was wondering [where those came from].
PP: My figures from last week say 13 positives out of 194 students...
HS: And that includes non-athletes?
PP: Yes...there were 49 non student-athletes. So that's about a 6.7% [positivity rate], give or take from a random sample, which is right about where Johnson County as a whole was last week.
HS: So with this new higher number of cases...why did we not go virtual again? And why were students not notified of the number of cases?
PP: Well, they are notified, that's what the website is for...what we do is we gather the data, we give it to the physicians and the physicians tell us, "this is a manageable rate," given the protocol you have in place. So if you recall, we were at about 8% [positivity] a couple weeks ago, when we came back to campus. So 6.7 is actually a decline. So there hasn't been a surge. The tracking on the website is a snapshot of a week based on surveillance testing of a limited sample of students...and then the aggregate is, of course, all of the positives that have accumulated since August... In fact, the news got better in terms of positivity. We know a little more than some other schools know, because we've chosen to test more students.
HS: And whenever I said notified, I meant like when Dean Jones had sent out the email when we had those first, like 15 cases. So, you're going based on the positivity rate on when to consider...the need to specifically tell students "this is what's going on"?
PP: The run of the mill bi-weekly testing, unless it shows something abhorrent, we just add to the dashboard. You know, we got spooked, I got spooked. But we all got spooked when we took that first limited sample. Because we weren't sure whether that was an isolated blip, or evidence of a wider level of incidence. It turned out to be an isolated blip. If I had to do over again, I still would have done the same thing. Just you know, I think when you're making a decision, you're waiting four or five days to get more data. It just makes more sense to be overly cautious, I suppose.
HS: I know some athletes, since they're randomly selected, they [could be tested twice in a row]. If an athlete tests positive, let's say the first week, and then they get selected to be tested again the second week, if they still test positive, is that added as a new number?
PP: It's actually thrown out. And we had to we had to research that both with the CDC and with our own healthcare professionals. And what they've decided is you just have to pull those out of your data because they make the data less accurate...what we'll try to do is not retest previous positives.
HS: So, do you believe that the single week of no in-person activities was enough to relieve the number of cases that had popped up?
PP: No, that wasn't really wasn't its purpose. Its purpose was to get better data. To be sure that while we retrieved better data, which is basically a wider sample, we weren't dealing with a bigger problem. So we got, we got bigger data out of a bigger sample size, that data was deemed manageable by our healthcare partners. So whether or not the week away impacted that is kind of irrelevant to its purpose, It really was just an abundance of caution, while we gathered more data.
HS: What is the school doing to help alleviate students anxieties, especially now that we're starting to see the more cases?
PP: Well, it's society's anxiety...and you got to keep in mind, it's a snapshot. So we have a snapshot of a positivity rate that is just about comparable to what Johnson County's rate is. So there's going to be a certain amount of anxiety that as long as this phenomenon stays with us. So the challenge at hand, is how to manage the phenomenon. So my plea to everybody has been stick with the mitigation, because if anything, simply weather forcing people indoors, is going to heighten the possibility of carelessness with the mitigations protocol...So we've all just got to really remind ourselves the only thing that protects everybody at this point is the combination of distance plus mask. So as long as we stick with that, then we're going to be fine.
HS: When the clusters first came out, did you see it as maybe a failure in the Fortify Franklin plan?
PP: No, this was never going to be zero incidents. Anybody that set the bar there was just being unrealistic. So what we've got to do is... the effort of the Fortify Franklin plan, from the beginning, was mitigation, not elimination. This is a virus that flies through the air and attacks. So elimination is not the objective, or at least not a realistic one. So the question is, how do you mitigate it so that you can do your business and keep that positivity rate at a manageable level? And so far, we've been able to do that.
HS: How do we move forward from here? What do we...like everyone, but also individually as students, do to keep this from happening again?
PP: So what we established was what we thought was a widespread blip turned out not to be it turned out to be an isolated blip. So the way to keep even even isolated incidents from happening is to be super conscientious about distance plus mask. And obviously, my concern goes less to 7:45, Monday to 4 p.m., Friday, and more to after evening hours during the week, and then on weekends, because I think there's just a natural tendency to let your guard down. And the more we fight that tendency to let your guard down, the better able we're going to be to keep everybody in good health.