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There is no replacement for a living, learning community: Vanderbilt University Chancellor on COVID-19 strategy

Daniel Diermeier, Vanderbilt University Chancellor, joins Yahoo Finance to talk about how his university is constantly adapting its coronavirus strategy.

Video Transcript

ADAM SHAPIRO: Daniel Diermeier, he's Vanderbilt chancellor's-- he's the chancellor of Vanderbilt University. He's joining us now as part of our Road to Recovery segment focused on education brought to you by TIAA. He's joining us from the university in Nashville, Tennessee, along with our education reporter, Aarthi Swaminathan. And we welcome you, Aarthi. It's good to see you.

So, chancellor, let's start with this. You have to test your students on a regular basis. And we noticed a recent article that the Vanderbilt Hustler put out, that the 100 cases of COVID-19 is the highest weekly case count, at least from October 19 through October 25. What can you tell us about where you stand today and how you keep going forward with the rise that appears to be underway?

DANIEL DIERMEIER: Yeah, so we had-- this is where I think we're in the 11th week now. And we've had-- we have done mandatory testing every week. And our typical positivity rate is around between 0.4 and 0.6. Last week, we had an increase. And in part, that's driven by the increase that we've seen in Nashville and in Tennessee.

But because we have excellent contract tracing, we have been able to identify what the issues are. And we're already containing and the numbers are really going down. So the key thing in order to be able to handle this effectively is to have mandatory testing. That's essential for all your student, for all your student body. We do it weekly. Some do it-- some other universities do it biweekly or randomized and so forth.

And then to have effective contract tracing, so that once you have an issue in a particular area or with a particular group of students, you can immediately react.

AARTHI SWAMINATHAN: Chancellor, you have an interesting situation. You have all the resources. You have space-- enough space to do quarantining. But because of this fall, we're seeing a lot of changes. So what have you changed in your strategy? Have you done more wastewater testing, for instance? That's becoming the big thing. Any specific modifications done to your COVID strategy?

DANIEL DIERMEIER: Yeah, so the important thing is that you constantly have to adapt. Nobody has ever done this before. And so you have to constantly learn, and you have to make changes on the fly. We haven't done wastewater testing largely because we have other ways in order to get-- to assess where we are with the students. The wastewater testing was largely done by large public universities where, like, you know, large scale testing is much more expensive. So we didn't have to do that.

But we're constantly looking at where they are-- where there are improvements and what we can do in order to deal with that. So you know, one example is we had started out with having mandatory testing for all the students that would come back. And then after a week or so, we decided to have weekly testing so that we were able to address that.

We're also constantly working on communication strategies, how do we talk to the students. A very important part of that is also is to have-- make sure that they interact with each other and that there are opportunities for them to get to know each other, so that even though we live in a world where, you know, we have to physical distancing, we still have a sense of community, and we've built that.

So there's ongoing innovation in new ways of interacting with each other that we just didn't have to do before. And one has to be open to constantly revisit your assumptions and have to learn from that. For example, we thought originally that the biggest concern for us, or big concern for us would be transmission inside the classrooms or inside residence halls. But there has been nothing of that space.

So the only major concern that we and all of our peers are dealing with are potential transmissions that are because of off campus behavior. People go into restaurants together or off campus gathering. That is the big deal. So we learned that. We didn't know that at the beginning. But that was-- that's the focus now. And an important part of that is to talk to the students and make sure that they understand that they have to continuously step up.

JULIE HYMAN: Chancellor, it's Julie here. So another way that you're having to adapt, one would assume, is how your teachers are teaching, how professors are teaching, and sort of adapting and making the online experience where their online class is the best that it can be. What have you found in that sense? And what communication feedback are you getting both from your students and your professors on that front?

DANIEL DIERMEIER: So we are a little bit distinct from our peers that most of our classes are in person. So we have-- we invited all of our students back. We have about 50% of our students living on campus, about 35% living off campus, but in the natural-- you know, close to campus. And about 15% are online or that they are participating remotely, largely the national students.

So all our students can participate in the learning experience. That's how we've set it up. So we set it up-- you know, every classroom is enabled for remote students to participate fully. So we have still most of our classes are in person. That includes, for example, the School of Medicine, where all the classes are in person. And that's the unique aspect to that.

Having said that, we decided to take especially large classes online. For large lecture classes, that was a decision we made. There are a bunch of others that are online as well. And there we really tried to be innovative. And so to give you one example, we have a super popular class where we have, I think, 825 students that are discussing the election right now. It's co-led by our Dean of the Arts and Science, Jon Meacham, the distinguished historian.

And so they talk about their four faculty members teaching, and they talk about literally what's happening in the electorate, in the presidential campaign, as we speak. And then they have distinguished guests show up and participate and talk to the students. So a couple of weeks ago, we had the Speaker Nancy Pelosi suddenly pop up in Zoom and talk to the students.

And that's something we just couldn't do before. So we're learning about how we can use online in-- the type of online test we do in an innovative way. We're doing in the nursing school, for example, even some of the practical work that the clinical work can be done that way. So there's constant innovation going on.

Having said that, what we've also learned during this process is that the-- there's no replacement for a live and learn community. We're a residential university. We're a residential college. And we have learned that the desire of our students and the value that they get from being together in person is very high. So I would say there is innovation that's going on, especially for some of the larger lecture classes, but has also reinforced the value of residential education.