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  • Adam Shamsi

Three Steps Universities Have Taken To Survive The Pandemic

The decision to reopen schools was vigorously debated throughout the summer. Ultimately, each university created its own coronavirus containment strategy. Now, the containment plans are being put to the test. Already, we can see a dichotomy between the schools that have managed their COVID-19 cases and schools that have failed to contain the spread.

In June, Researchers Philip T. Gressman and Jennifer R. Peck wrote a paper entitled “Simulating COVID-19 in a University Environment” that modeled the necessary steps to contain covid in a university setting. They found that if a university follows stringent protective measures — universal mask wearing, an initial quarantine, contact tracing, large classes being placed online and daily testing of 3% of the university population — then total cases would be less than 66 people in 95% of simulations. Many universities have opened with plans similar to that in the model, but the results did not parallel Gressman and Peck’s research.

Schools like the University of Notre Dame and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have been in the news for shutting down in-person activities and sending students home. Other schools, such as the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama, are only a matter of days away from having to make drastic changes, as they have more than 3,500 and 2,690 cases, respectively. To better understand what caused these universities to fail, we can examine their reopening plan.

University of Notre Dame

The Notre Dame plan dictated that:

  • Classes will start two weeks early so that they can end before Thanksgiving break

  • Everyone must wear masks on campus at all times and in all places, both outside and inside, the only exception being inside a dorm room

  • People must keep gatherings to less than 10 and maintain 6 feet at all times

  • All food from the dining hall is only available for takeout and students can only eat either outside or in dormitories

  • Students who violate guidelines will “face severe disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal from the University”

After just one week into the school year, Notre Dame had 147 cases and was forced to move all classes online. Notre Dame’s fatal flaw may have been in their testing system. They tested all students on entry and less than 1% of students produced positive COVID-19 tests. However, after the initial tests, they did not require students to take another test.

Instead, they only required testing for students with symptoms, or had been close contacts of a positive case. Current COVID-19 tests do not give immediate results. An article published by Harvard Medical School states that a COVID-19 test result is “almost guaranteed to come back negative” within 24 hours of being exposed to the virus.

A lag between contracting the virus and when it shows up on a test combined with the lack of quarantine means many of the negative results students and faculty had were inaccurate. The lack of mandated testing and quarantining combined with irresponsible students caused the school to have an outbreak.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The UNC plan:

  • Students move in during their scheduled time during the week of Aug. 3-9

  • Required mask-wearing

  • Signage posted to direct the flow of traffic and to uphold the 6-foot distance rule

  • Occupancy limits for each room

  • Limited seating in the dining hall, with mostly take-out meals

  • 57% of classes to be held in-person

  • Certain dormitories dedicated to isolation housing

By the second week of school, the university had a positivity rate of more than 13% and had to cancel all in-person classes and activities. The path that led to UNC’s closing is similar to Notre Dame's: UNC did not require enough testing.

UNC did not even require students to get tested before arriving on campus. University officials argued that providing tests for everyone would “could create a false sense of security”. Instead, the university only offers COVID-19 tests to individuals who: exhibit symptoms for COVID-19, have come in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 or are in a CDC-defined high-risk group.

The lack of widespread testing made it hard to catch cases early on. Additionally, the University limited indoor and outdoor gatherings to 25 people despite state health guidelines suggesting indoor activities should remain at 10 people or less. The students at UNC also had a similar disregard for health guidelines on gathering. Many videos circulated of students holding large, non-distanced gatherings. Ultimately, the University suspended all in person classes and many students returned home.

University of Georgia (UGA):

The UGA plan:

  • The University will suspend all in-person classes and activities after Thanksgiving break

  • Furniture and floor plans readjusted to ensure 6 feet of social distancing

  • Large classes moved online

  • Masks required for all students and faculty inside buildings

  • Voluntary COVID-19 testing to any student or faculty member who requests one, for up to 300 tests a day

Currently, UGA has more than 3,500 confirmed cases among students and faculty, with 1,417 of the cases reported the week of Aug. 31 to Sept. 4. A county coroner has confirmed that at least one faculty member has died from COVID-19.

The University is stuck in a difficult place. So many of its students are testing positive, and sending them back home could cause massive outbreaks of COVID-19 across the country. However, keeping them on campus endangers the lives of faculty and students.

The failure to contain COVID-19 at UGA is so blaring because of the University’s lack of action. Both the previously mentioned universities acted in a relatively quick manner. After only a couple hundred cases, UNC and Notre Dame moved to online learning. UGA, however, climbed up to more than 10 times the amount of cases without response from University officials.

The students seem to share a similar lack of concern. Packed fraternities, bars, and parties with no students wearing masks are commonplace. Even students who wish to wear a mask are ridiculed for it.

Daniella Bustos, a student at UGA, recounted an experience where she was wearing a mask when another student yelled, “Why do you have your mask on? You are outside, stupid.” With negative peer pressure regarding basic safe protective practices, it's clear to see how UGA is now the leading university in reported cases.

The three steps for survival

According to the model mentioned at the start of the article, each of these universities should have been able to survive. However, what the model failed to account for was the bending and breaking of the rules by people on campus. In order to compensate for the negligence of some students, many universities have had successful results by following 3 steps.

1) Implementing a robust and repeated testing plan. It is not enough to only test students with symptoms. Instead, regular testing is needed to catch asymptomatic spreaders. Schools like Tufts University, Cornell University and Purdue University all require students to get tested upon arrival and twice a week throughout the semester. Furthermore, each of these schools require a quarantine period.

2) Enforcing guidelines. Recently, Northeastern University suspended 11 students for gathering against regulations. The strict enforcement of coronavirus guidelines deters students from breaking the rules.

3) Creating a culture where students behave responsibly. Unsurprisingly, at almost every university across the country with a large COVID-19 outbreak, there is a gathering that they can trace the outbreaks to. All three universities examined in this article were victims of students disregarding the rules.

Some universities have attempted to curb the spread through student campaigns. Emory University has implemented the “For You. For Us. For Emory.” campaign and Boston University has implemented the “F*ck It Won’t Cut It” campaign. Both are massive pushes by the students to take the pandemic seriously. With signs plastered across campus and social media, the hope is that students are reminded of the seriousness of the pandemic and will act accordingly.

Of course, these three steps are only possible if a university has enough resources. It takes a substantial amount of money to repeatedly test every single person on campus. Additionally, it is costly to hire additional faculty and security to monitor and enforce regulations.

Ironically, it is the time where we can not physically be with each other that we need each other the most. If a college campus is to survive COVID-19, the staff, students, and community need to work together to create the safest environment for everyone.


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