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As COVID-19 surges on campuses, in-person learning becomes less of a reality

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Colleges and universities are already shifting from in-person instruction to online classes after hundreds of students on campuses across the country tested positive for COVID-19, throwing cold water on hopes for the fall semester.  

In the past week, big-name schools such as Notre Dame, Michigan State and University of North Carolina have moved classes online after briefly resuming in-person instruction, and other universities are likely to do the same in the coming weeks as the explosion of cases continues. 

Clusters have also been identified at other universities that remain open, threatening to spill over into the college towns and cities across America. But as cases continue to rise in these communities, experts warn that in-person instruction at universities will most likely prove infeasible in the middle of a pandemic. 

College-aged students and young adults are the main demographic currently spreading the disease, according to recent data. This fact puts the student population, faculty, staff and the communities they reside in at risk.  

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned this week that young adults are becoming major spreaders of the virus, particularly those who don’t know they have it because their symptoms are mild or nonexistent. 

“We know from several studies that young adults spread the virus at very high rates. Bringing college and university students to campus, living in close proximity, will be a perfect set up for the virus to spread, quickly,” said Katherine Auger, associate chair for outcomes at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. 

Students of this particular age group engage in riskier behaviors such as partying that help spread COVID-19. 

 And some students are arriving from other cities and states, some which might be hotspots for COVID-19, creating the possibility that they could seed outbreaks in their college towns.

“It’s very difficult in this moment of time in the United States to bring huge numbers of people together and assume that cases won’t spread, especially in this age group,” said Dr. Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. School of Public Health. 

“I think it is one of the most difficult age groups, it’s not high school where you can realistically try to keep most people from partying and it’s not elementary school and it’s not adults. It’s this one age group where famously it has a lot of people who come together on a regular basis and and congregate and most likely without masks and that’s just the reality of college life for a lot of people.” 

Several outbreaks in universities and colleges have already been spotted across the country. 

UNC shifted undergraduate in-person instruction to virtual learning after 130 students tested positive in the first week of classes. The percentage of tests coming back positive was nearly 14 percent — a figure that would classify it as a hotspot if UNC were its own county, city or state.

Notre Dame, which has confirmed 336 cases of COVID-19 since Aug. 3, will transition online for the next two weeks in an effort to stop the disease from spreading. If that doesn’t work, the campus could close for the rest of the semester.

Similar stories will likely be told over the next few weeks, when students return to campuses at hundreds of institutions. 

Thirty-seven percent of higher learning institutions plan to hold some or all classes in person this fall, a drop from the 74 percent that planned to as of June, according to the College Crisis Initiative, a project at Davidson College that seeks to learn how “colleges and universities innovate in a crisis mindset.”

“I just don’t see a whole lot of schools making it all the way through the semester,” said Matt McFadden, vice president of strategy & Accounts at SimpsonScarborough, a higher education marketing and research agency.  

“What we’re seeing right now is it’s almost impossible to prepare, even though they spent all summer doing it. It’s just something that nobody’s ever dealt with,” McFadden said.  

Campuses are trying to make adjustments during the pandemic by reducing capacity in housing, requiring masks and social distancing, doing testing and contact tracing and setting up areas where students with COVID-19 can quarantine. But that might not be enough to stop the disease from spreading, especially if students aren’t following social distancing rules or wearing masks.  

Several schools, like Syracuse and Purdue, are already having trouble getting students to stop partying, threatening suspension of expulsion of those caught doing it. 

“Last night, a large group of first-year students selfishly jeopardized the very thing that so many of you claim to want from Syracuse University—that is, a chance at a residential college experience,” a Syracuse official wrote in a tersely worded letter Thursday. 

“I say this because the students who gathered on the Quad last night may have done damage enough to shut down campus, including residence halls and in-person learning, before the academic semester even begins.”

Mina said colleges and universities should ensure they have an adequate testing and contact tracing infrastructure, as well as the capacity to quarantine and isolate students with COVID-19. It’s not enough to test all students once, but institutions should have access to fast, surveillance testing that can test students multiple times a semester to detect cases before they become outbreaks. 

But even as schools endure these difficulties, in-person instruction is resuming at hundreds of institutions this fall. This, in part, is due to schools’ financial stability. 

Elite schools like Harvard and Princeton have resources to expand testing and conduct classes online, but less wealthy schools and smaller state and private schools do not. These schools are more likely to re-open because of a dependence on tuition and room and board revenue, McFadden said. 

“There’s definitely a financial obligation there for them to open. They support thousands of employees, even at smaller schools and so not opening at full capacity is detrimental to get their own micro-economy,” he said. 

Institutions might also feel obligated to keep campuses open to support students who don’t have stable learning environments or resources at home, he added.  

Experts warn outbreaks at universities can lead to rises in cases within their communities. While young adults are far less likely to experience serious COVID-19 illness, they can still spread it to people who will, namely older adults and people with underlying health conditions. 

Opening colleges and universities can also make it more difficult to open K-12 classrooms, which should be the priority, some experts say, because the impacts of missing in-person instruction are greater on children, especially younger ones. College students can also better adjust to online learning. 

“As colleges reopen, it is quite probable that community numbers will rise to the point that we are unable to have in-person classes for younger children,” Auger added.  

She noted that Ohio State University has students living on campus, but the City of Columbus has decided to have virtual learning for K-12. 

“Therefore opening colleges will have tradeoffs with younger student learning,” she added. 

Higher education institutions face not only financial pressures to reopen, but political pressures. The Trump administration has made a major push to open K-12 schools, but the president this week also urged universities to resume in-person classes.  

“The iPads are wonderful but you’re not going to learn the same way as being there,” he said. 

“But for university students the likelihood of severe illness is less than or equal to the risk of a seasonal flu.”


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