LOUDONVILLE — Colleges across the Capital District are no exception to the wrath of COVID-19. While many schools are battling outbreaks in large groups, Siena College has managed to keep COVID-19 at bay with some unique protocols.
Kate Meierdiercks, Ph.D., is spearheading a wastewater testing project on campus. Meierdiercks and her two research mentees, Cassidy Hammecker and Anne Larsen, have spent the past few months opening manholes and sampling campus wastewater on Monday and Tuesday mornings. The trio has help from Siena dean John Cummings, a physics professor who has lent his knowledge to saving money and producing better results, and a swath of volunteers who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty…literally.
“I have a colleague at Bard College who was using this type of testing when the pandemic first broke out in March,” Meierdiercks said, “and they were able to pinpoint different ‘hotspots’ on campus.”
The testing is pretty simple; researchers collect a sample of wastewater from each of the nine residence halls on campus using samplers made by Cummings. Each sampler can be made for hundreds of dollars and is available instantly, rather than the $1,000-plus dollar ones backordered online. The team is working with Adirondack Environmental Services, who helps facilitate getting the wastewater to a lab in Syracuse. From the wastewater, researchers test for remnants of COVID-19. If a student or staff member in those halls uses the restroom, showers, does laundry, washes their hands or even vomits while hosting coronavirus contagion, the wastewater will alert researchers. From there, Meierdiercks and her team are able to determine where an outbreak could start. With that knowledge, school officials can direct resources to the location, ultimately quarantining those who were exposed and removing others before it’s too late.
The Siena community has a dashboard that shows where COVID-19 is on campus and shows the results of Meierdeircks’ team’s work. While Siena tries to get quarantined and sick students or staff home, it understands sometimes it isn’t possible and has places for those quarantining. The dashboard has become a vital tool in mitigating COVID-19 on campus, provost and senior vice president Margaret Madden, Ph.D., said. While Siena has had up to 100 people quarantining at any given time, Madden said the number is lower as the finish line creeps closer.
“So far, we haven’t had a major cluster, and with a week left of this semester, we are happy we’ve been able to keep it under control,” Madden said. “Our staff and faculty have come up with innovative ways to make the Siena experience as normal as possible during these abnormal times.”
Those innovative ways? Siena has tents around campus. Four of those tents are for classes, where in-person learning can take place in a socially distanced, approved environment. Other tents are for student life activities or dining. Everyone is wearing masks unless they are sitting down eating. Now that the weather is turning brisk, many professors are moving classes indoors, alternating class population between multiple days and utilizing online learning to supplement students who aren’t physically in class.
Madden added the face-to-face experience is what sets Siena apart and is why students love their experience. Despite the obstacles, she’s found students are happy to have the privilege of going to class, even if it means making sacrifices.
Adam Casler, assistant dean of students and director of community life, echoed Madden’s sentiments. As a staff member who works hands-on with the greater student population on a daily basis, he’s proud to see everyone on campus stepping up to the task.
“We knew students wanted to come back after switching to remote learning mid-last semester, and over the summer our community stepped up to the task to make sure that could happen,” Casler said. He added move-in days this semester were spread out over five days instead of two and all on campus were required to fill out health screening forms and have their temperature taken.
Casler acknowledged the sacrifices are difficult, but he’s impressed that everyone has been pretty compliant. Most students have limited their travel off-campus to essential activities and are wearing masks while hanging out, even if they are socially distanced. Still, there is a limit on how many people are allowed in a dorm room at any given time.
“Every single person on this campus made changes so we could keep going,” he added. “We’ve been able to do this because our community came through.”
Hammecker and Larsen, both juniors, are splitting their time between classes and getting in the manholes. As unique members of the Siena community due to their involvement in projects hand-in-hand with administration, the women are focused and fortunate to be doing what they love and making a difference.
“Seeing how interested people are in what we’re doing,” Hammecker said, “and having them understand we are trying to kill this virus, not threatening their ability to be here, is what keeps me going.” Hammecker said her experience working with Meierdiercks and Larsen, as well as their colleagues, has given her a sense of pride and confidence as she moves about her day.
“This project has helped me see how easy it is for students to get involved on campus,” Larsen said. “I’ve been able to split this research with my time working on citizen science research and it’s so much fun to be able to learn these new skills.”
Hammecker and Larsen said student life is as normal as it could possibly be under the circumstances. Both students are still able to spend time with their friends (masked) and pursue their degrees safely.
“Our wastewater project is such a grassroots effort that has involved everyone on campus stepping up and lending their expertise,” Meierdiercks concluded. “We’re like the rest of campus in that stopping the spread on campus has been all hands on deck.”