Which schools are doing a great job of keeping COVID cases low and staying open? What’s their secret?
More stressful than final exams or roommate disagreements, the pandemic has upturned traditional college expectations. Institutions around the world transitioned to a remote-learning environment, and many saw enrollment suffer because of it. As the tides turned in 2021 with the vaccine rollout and holiday spikes ebbing, some schools are re-engaging with in-person teaching, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Penn State University. But college towns worry about large student gatherings and shared residential spaces facilitating quickly-spreading clusters throughout the local community. But it’s not all doom and gloom; certain campuses are out-performing others to operate somewhat normally and maintain low COVID cases. What steps have they taken to keep their campuses safe?
Creating a Campus Task Force
One of the first key steps in managing the virus’s impact on campus was to develop a COVID task force. Wagner College in New York started early, developing its own Pandemic Response Team in January 2020. Leveraging medical and public health experts through the northeast, Wagner mandated weekly testing protocols and transparent reporting mechanisms. The task force was critical in the college’s success; rather than quickly reacting to concerns or overcorrecting, stakeholders throughout campus could collectively work through decisions and create a unified message. Rather than multiple departments sending separate emails, a singular COVID leadership team could develop a concise website and message.
Facilitating Surveillance Testing
Unlike its Ivy League peers up north, Duke University remained predominantly open throughout the pandemic. Administrators credit their innovative approach to COVID-19 testing and tracing. Students received testing schedules and their results via a unique smartphone app developed by the institution. Duke implemented “pooled testing,” a method by which multiple samples are diagnosed with one test; this allows more students to get tested with fewer resources. The catch? This method only works when positive cases in the community remain low. Duke also implemented extensive testing protocols for its athletes, and NCAA fans will watch a relatively normal season. The school’s contact tracing team was quick to respond to positive test results, interviewing individuals and immediately notifying those at risk of exposure.
Enforcing Relevant Consequences
Even with the implementation of testing protocols and quarantine rules, campus officials must be prepared for students to push back against COVID policy. Whether it’s COVID fatigue or a general disregard for the virus’s severity, students are unlikely to follow all the rules all the time. Some universities have pursued more severe consequences, suspending hundreds of students at once for attending parties. Others have overloaded conduct officers by sending countless students through a tedious conduct investigation. Schools that are successfully staying open are getting more creative with consequences. Baylor University in Texas is piloting weekly COVID testing for all members of the campus community, with a particularly harsh consequence for Gen-Zers who skip their test: students who miss three testing appointments lose their Wi-Fi access. But there are incentives as well, including raffle prizes and gift certificates for students who get tested.
Offering Teletherapy Options
Mental health providers have witnessed a rise in young adults struggling with anxiety and depression. Colleges, like Loyola University in Illinois and City University of New York (CUNY), are expanding counseling services by hiring more providers and purchasing technology to better facilitate teletherapy. University officials recognize that mental health creates significant barriers to academic success, and many students cannot afford private services. Investment in student outreach and counseling is a crucial step for campuses to endure and recover from the pandemic.