Students line up for coronavirus testing on the STEPS lawn during the fall 2020 semester. Testing is being made more widely available for those who are asymptomatic but identified as a close contact or mildly symptomatic at the STEPS tent. (Gabrielle Falk/BW Staff)

Lehigh reopens: Back to school in the age of COVID-19


Students and professors were wearing face masks. Two tents were set up on the STEPS and Zoellner lawns, facilitating student coronavirus testing. Students sat in their dorm rooms alone, logging onto their Zoom classes. 

This is what Aug. 24, the first day of the fall 2020 semester, looked like at Lehigh University. It was a first day of school unlike any other before. 

As Lehigh transitions to its hybrid model of courses, combining both an in-person and remote experience to students, everyone is adjusting to this new reality. 

Abby Sowa, ‘24, is adapting to her first week of college amid the pandemic. First-year students and those with extenuating circumstances are allowed to live on campus, and they are doing so in single dorm rooms. Some rooms are specifically left empty, designed to accommodate potential positive coronavirus cases who need to enter into isolation.

Sowa feels as though Lehigh made a huge effort to welcome first-year students during these unprecedented times. 

While she said traditions such as the first-year rally felt less special over Zoom, she has felt comfortable texting her orientation leader throughout the week. 

It’s been weird on Zoom, and I wish I wasn’t sitting in my dorm half the time, but I understand why it’s like that and it’s nice that they’re [Lehigh] putting in a lot of effort,” Sowa said. 

She said while making friends is different, she has found it comfortable to make small talk with people on the lines for entrance to the dining halls and even noticed people in her online orientation group while walking on campus. 

Every table in the dining hall has a plexiglass divider, and she said it was difficult to talk to the girl she was eating lunch with through the barrier. 

She said orientation leaders, as well as the school, have spoken a lot about the social distancing rules and the possible consequences. 

“I feel like they’re [Lehigh] definitely trying to keep their name out of the news,” Sowa said. “Right now we are seeing all these schools that have massive outbreaks or a huge party and they’re being exposed, and I think Lehigh does not want to be [associated]with that.” 

Lehigh, however, is already filing conduct charges against both individuals and organizations for potential violations to the university’s COVID guidelines, which require masks at all times on campus and prohibit gatherings of more than 10 people at off-campus events and limit gatherings to 25 for Lehigh-affiliated events. As of publication, 15 COVID-related conduct charges have been filed. 

A total of 12 students have tested positive for coronavirus to date, and Lehigh has conducted about 2,700 tests — resulting in a positivity rate of 0.43 percent.

Tommy Horgan, ‘21 has just begun his senior year and is living off campus. He has been trying to follow his typical morning routine to retain a sense of normalcy.

On Aug. 25 he attended his first in person class of the semester. He said he felt significantly more engaged in his traditional classroom environment than over Zoom. 

Horgan said there were only two other students, the TA and the professor present. Everyone wore a mask and kept their distance throughout the class. 

“I’m living with some of my closest friends, so that definitely helps and I’m able to see other friends that are comfortable with getting together in person and whatever their comfortable level of contact is,” Horgan said. “I’m trying to make the most of it, but I definitely don’t feel pressured to go see people or have other people come see me. I’m definitely trying to be safe about it, not having any gatherings over 10 people, we are very conscious of that rule.”

Not all Lehigh students, however, were able to make it to Bethlehem for the school year.

Max Kemper, ‘22 and Sarah Valenti, ‘22, have both decided to stay home this fall semester.

Valenti is taking her usual workload from home. Kemper is still technically enrolled in Lehigh, and is enrolled in a one credit IBE internship at an asset management firm. 

Kemper still served as an orientation leader for the class of 2024. 

He said while being an online orientation leader was a tough job, he thinks the orientation team adapted to make the most out of it. Kemper said he had both students who were on campus as well as remote students in his group.

“I had a couple of international students who were really concerned with staying home for the semester. I just told them to be open to everything going on and still try to make a genuine connection with professors, because even though classes are remote, professors do want to see everyone succeed,” he said. 

Valenti will be living at home in Massachusetts this semester. 

“Obviously I would really like to be back at Lehigh — I miss my friends, I miss the campus, but it just really wasn’t practical for me,” she said. “I know for a lot of people, it is practical and it is the best decision, but for me all my classes were online and I thought I could save some money and just be extra careful when it came to COVID, [because]my dad is high risk.” 

Valenti is adapting to new ways of focusing without being in the college environment. While it is bittersweet for Valenti, she feels as though she made the right decision for herself. 

“Even if I had gone back to Lehigh, it wouldn’t be the Lehigh I know and love,” she said.  

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