After months of anticipating what an in-person college semester might look like in the midst of a global pandemic, we’re starting to get a feel – and so far, it’s not going well.
Colleges across the country that have brought students back to campus are reporting dozens of positive cases of COVID-19. At Oklahoma State University, 23 positive cases reported were tied to a sorority house over the weekend. At the University of Tennessee, officials reported 28 positive cases, including 20 students, since August 1.
TO Colorado College, 155 students are being quarantined in campus housing after being exposed to a student who tested positive for the virus. “In the end, the protocols weren’t followed,” Colorado College spokesperson Leslie Weddell wrote in an email. Classes at the school are scheduled to start on August 24, which means these students will be connecting remotely, and, “for some, that may not be a change from what was already planned,” Weddell wrote.
And after observing a “significant increase” in positive cases between August 10 and August 16, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced Monday that it would switch undergraduate courses to distance education and reduce density in residences. On Monday afternoon, the school said there were 177 students in isolation and 349 in quarantine both on and off campus.
UNC Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz wrote in a post from the university that “the health and safety of our community on campus is paramount” and that the school would continue to adapt its plan as needed. .
“We understand the concerns and frustrations these changes will cause many students and parents,” Guskiewicz wrote. “As much as we believe we have worked diligently to help create a safe and healthy living and learning environment on campus, the current data presents an untenable situation. “
The announcement came as a result of alerts Sent to students, faculty and staff over the past few days identifying four clusters of positive cases in on-campus or off-campus housing linked to the University community. It also comes amid weeks of pressure from faculty and an editorial in the student newspaper criticizing the school’s initial plan for some in-person classes.
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“We all saw it coming”, the Daily Tar Heel editorial board wrote about the epidemic. “University management should have expected the students, many of whom are now living alone for the first time, to be reckless. Reports of parties throughout the weekend come as no surprise. While these students were not blameless, it was the University’s responsibility to discourage such gatherings by reconsidering its plans to operate in person earlier.
At Notre Dame University, the school’s president, Reverend John I. Jenkins, announced Tuesday that all undergraduate courses will be offered only remotely for at least two weeks after “a dramatic increase” in the number of students. positive cases at school. Officials have identified 147 cases out of 927 total tests since August 3.
Jenkins also said residences would be limited to residents only, public spaces on campus would be closed, and students living off campus would be required to stay in their residences, partner only with their roommates, and not come to campus for this period. Jenkins said the school’s contact tracing efforts suggest that most infections come from off-campus gatherings.
The school’s policy is not to discipline students for behaviors revealed during contact tracing surveys, Jenkins said, to encourage participation in these efforts. “If, however, we learn of a serious policy violation from other sources, we will take disciplinary action,” he said.
Jenkins encouraged students to adhere to health protocols, avoid unsafe behavior and report unsafe behavior, noting that if mitigation efforts outlined on Tuesday fail, students could be sent home.
“The virus is a formidable enemy, it won last week as the Fighting Irish join their efforts to contain it,” he said.
Professors have been modeling diseases spread across campuses for months
The cases at UNC, Notre Dame and elsewhere come after months of modeling, ordering masks and drafting safety guidelines. They also follow weeks of discussions about whether to reopen amid, in some cases, pressure from public health experts, faculty and students to stay largely at bay and the weight of pressure on income that could result from maintaining a closed campus. For many colleges, the funds students pay for on-campus housing represent an important source of income, and almost all schools rely heavily on tuition fees, which they worried the students and their families be reluctant to pay for a fully online experience.
The recent outbreaks raise the question of whether schools are doing enough to keep campuses safe, which are tightly interwoven communities that are susceptible to viral spread.
“We are starting to see that schools that have chosen to react only after symptoms appear are like fire departments that only react to alarms after the house has been declared fully on fire,” said David Paltiel. , professor at Yale School. of Public Health. “We explored thousands of scenarios and failed to find a single plausible circumstance under which this strategy would be able to contain an outbreak. “
by Paltiel modeling suggests that without a plan to test students and those who interact with them regularly at least twice a week, colleges are likely to catch up with the virus.
This is not a good place to start because even a relatively low infection rate on a college campus can get out of hand pretty quickly, according to two experts who modeled the spread of COVID-19 on campus since May.
When Jennifer Peck, an economist at Swarthmore College, and Phil Gressman, a mathematician at the University of Pennsylvania, began saw this problem a few months ago, they determined that some mitigation measures by universities – like requiring the wearing of a universal mask, moving most large classes online, and randomly testing 3% of the population on campus – could keep the cases positive. relatively low throughout the semester.
But the trajectory of the disease in the United States over the summer turned out to be very different from what they expected in May. Now, there is a much higher prevalence of community spread than what the original Peck and Gressman model assumed to be at present.
Both adjusted the model for our current COVID reality and some other factors – for example, 80% rather than universal mask compliance among students. The combination of higher prevalence in the community and not quite 100% compliance with guidelines has increased the number of positive cases, Gressman said.
The couple have also learned that even a relatively small number of positive cases in a relatively large college community is something schools should be concerned about. Even a campus with a population of 20,000 to 30,000 should start taking the disease threat seriously with the first positive case, Gressman said.
“There’s this feeling out there that cases are going to happen on college campuses,” Gressmen said. “It really is a dangerous way to look at it.”
A few days in a row with five positive cases indicates that a school is “on its way to having a serious problem,” Peck said. Schools on track for 50 or 100 cases of COVID-19 in a semester should not report positive tests on most days, Peck said. Because the data on positive cases is relatively ‘noisy’ – meaning that a clear pattern is not necessarily presented – and because, for every positive test, there may be several more positive cases in the community, schools may not intervene before it is too late, the two said.
Schools are “at a crossroads,” said Gressman, “even though the semester has already started, they really need to reconsider what they’re doing.”