A student wearing a mask enters STEPS Building to attend in-person class. Amidst some lingering precautions, the majority of classes have returned to in-person teaching. (Xinru Qin/B&W Staff)

The new normal: Balancing persisting COVID-19 cases and a return to in-person schooling


With 94 percent of students vaccinated and in-person classes resuming, students like Michaela Gualano, ‘23, were “overwhelmingly excited” about the upcoming semester.

Within the first week and a half of classes  the number of active COVID-19 cases has jumped to a total of 134, as of Sept. 1.

97 of the active cases are among students living in residence halls and 37 are among students living off campus. As of Sept. 1 there are zero active faculty cases.

This rise in cases mark a 58 percent increase in cases from Aug. 31.

On Aug. 31 the dashboard reported 85 total active cases, which was a 74 percent increase from the 49 active cases reported on Aug. 30.

While 94 percent of undergraduate and graduate students are reported as fully vaccinated, 1.7 percent are partially vaccinated, 3.4 percent have submitted exemptions for review and 0.9 percent of students fall within the “other” category.

In-person classes are still standing and will only go remote if an instructor is sick or more than 30 percent of those in the class go into isolation. If someone in a class tests positive, students are directed to self-monitor for symptoms.

For herd immunity to work, vaccination rates would need to be in at least the 90 percent range for the COVID-19 delta variant virus, said Kevin Vrablik, MD, MPH, chief of the Division of Occupational Medicine at Lehigh Valley Health Network.

“Even if you had 100 percent of the students and the faculty vaccinated, you’re still going to have breakthrough cases,” Vrablik said. “No vaccine is 100 percent effective and we are seeing people that are vaccinated who are getting sick with COVID. The good news is those that are vaccinated and get sick don’t usually get severe illness and rarely end up in the hospital.”

Masks remain mandatory in indoor spaces including classrooms, libraries and fitness centers, in accordance with CDC guidelines.

The Health and Wellness Center spoke with The Brown and White in an email interview about the fall semester.

“Our goal is to maintain in-person activities on campus this semester and the masking policy helps ensure the ability to do so,” the Health and Wellness Center said. “We are continuing to monitor data and guidance from the CDC, Pennsylvania Department of Health and other public health sources, as well as local transmission rates in Northampton County, on campus and in South Bethlehem.”

Despite the mask mandate, Gualano has mixed feelings about how protected she is in the classroom.

“Masks are definitely there, but at the same time in 90 percent of my classes I’m on top of the student next to me,” Gualano said.

The 134 cases reported by the university consist of students who were tested at the HWC and those who were tested off campus and uploaded their results to the patient portal. The HWC’s tests are billed to students’ insurance, and those without insurance on file will be billed for this testing.

The high vaccination rates have even allowed some Lehigh students to study abroad this semester. There are currently 18 Lehigh students studying abroad.

Katie Welsh Radande, director of Lehigh Study Abroad, said dealing with changing situations is “nothing new” for the department. She said the International Travel Advisory Committee works closely with the university to review safety and risk factors.

“We’re certainly reviewing conditions, and will respond either by supporting students at site, or having students return to state-side if needed,” Welsh Radande said.

Though the situations abroad and on-campus continue to be monitored, students are sharing excitement about the in-person semester.

“It’s so nice being able to walk on campus and see familiar faces, in a time where people can be super stressed, it makes you feel better,” Gualano said.

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