Which Colleges are “Getting Reopening Right” and Why?

The college community is three weeks into fall semester 2020 and the pandemic performance results thus far range from alarming to somewhat comforting… for those fortunate few. My college kids (and students in my research circles) are back on campus. Almost every day we exchange stories about their life under the pandemic, a strange new experience that largely depends on their colleges’ strategy for reopening.

I’ve been tracking the success (for some, failure) of reopening plans across a variety of college campuses to see under what conditions and why “Corona College” or “Pandemic University” can work. In The Colleges That Are Getting Reopening Right”, Axios. Sept. 13, 2020, Axios identifies colleges which are “getting reopening right”.  “These success stories show that reopening can work, but typically only at small, rural campuses. At the big universities, even the best-laid plans inevitably come apart.”

However, my review of pandemic statistics on a variety of colleges and universities (CollegesCovidTestRates) shows that several large universities are “getting reopening right” as well. Almost every school has its own COVID-19 dashboard (easily found in a Google search). I looked at cumulative COVID-19 positivity rates among a variety of colleges and found both smaller, more rural private colleges as well as large private universities with a low positivity rate hovering around 1% thus far. I wondered why? 

My research indicates that the following types of colleges / universities are also “getting reopening right”: 

  • Larger private universities with financial resources and facilities to test frequently (Cornell, BU, Tulane)
  • Smaller colleges in more rural settings (Colby, Marist, Skidmore)
  • Colleges and universities with realistic expectations of student behavior (Colby, Middlebury, Wesleyan)
  • Those that provide robust and frequent, accessible testing administered by the school (BU, Cornell)
  • Larger universities with an online (and not in-person) learning format (Tulane and UNC among the schools which began in-person and now are online only)

As the college community adjusts to this unprecedented fall semester, let’s hope to see more campuses (of all types) get reopening right.

The colleges that are getting reopening right, Axios Sept. 13, 2020
by Erica Pandey

Universities that brought students back to campus have already seen a rough start to the fall, with more than 50,000 infections across the country. But some have seemingly cracked the code.

The big picture: A number of schools have managed to open up while quelling or even preventing outbreaks, either because they’re effectively testing and tracing or because they’ve got smaller student bodies and more rural locations.

While many bigger universities in cities decided to start off with remote learning, smaller campuses in smaller towns — like Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont — welcomed students with negative test results back, betting that the relative isolation could keep infections at bay.

So far, that seems to be working, says Joshua Salomon, a professor of medicine at Stanford.

Other campuses that have effectively navigated reopening include Wesleyan University in Connecticut and Ohio’s Stark State College.

Wesleyan stands out because it is committed to giving students opportunities to safely hang out with one another — unlike many campuses, which are desperately attempting to stop socialization.

No infections have been traced back to Stark State since it opened for in-person classes months ago, ABC reports. Its success is partly due to the fact that it’s a community college with 80% of students learning online already.

The catch: Some large universities are running aggressive testing campaigns, but they’re still seeing high numbers of infections.

Experts have pointed to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has been testing students twice a week, as an example of the right way to reopen. But the university has seen a sharp uptick in cases recently.

“What’s happening at UIUC is emblematic of what’s happening all over the country,” Salomon says. “It’s very hard to get people to isolate for 14 days.”

To prevent infections from turning into outbreaks, he says, bigger colleges should make sure dorms are clean and comfortable and offer easy meal delivery so infected students don’t see quarantine as a nuisance or a punishment.

The bottom line: These success stories show that reopening can work, but typically only at small, rural campuses. At the big universities, even the best-laid plans inevitably come apart.


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