Skip to content

Colleges weigh how to confront COVID-19 as they plan to reopen

Strategies include routine testing, setting aside dorms for isolation and changing schedules

Georgetown University workers walk across campus with cleaning supplies.
Georgetown University workers walk across campus with cleaning supplies. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Students at Grinnell College will be returning to campus during the next academic year, but likely not all at the same time.

The Iowa college plans to bring students back in smaller cohorts for roughly seven weeks at a time, allowing essentially all of its roughly 1,700 students to spend time on campus throughout the academic year. The college is partnering with the testing company Tempus to have regularly scheduled diagnostic tests on campus.

Across the country, colleges and universities are determining how to safely reopen their campuses for in-person classes and determining how campus life will need to change to protect people from the virus that causes COVID-19. The issue is one of numerous societal challenges that a wide range of officials have to confront in individual decisions that could each impact public health while the world waits for vaccines or treatments. 

When Grinnell students arrive on campus, they will be tested for the virus, as will faculty and staff. Students who test positive would be isolated on campus in a separate dormitory, while others would move into their regular dorms.

The college is contracting with a modeling unit to help determine how often to test throughout the year, which could be as frequently as every week. Grinnell expects to have an average of 600 tests available each week, President Raynard Kington told CQ Roll Call. By having tests available on campus and restricting the number of people there, Kington said he’s confident the campus can reopen and limit the threat of the virus.

“We think we can do it safely with a rigorous program of testing but also social distancing” and using protective equipment such as masks, Kington said.

Different approaches

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will hold a Thursday hearing to discuss how colleges are preparing to reopen and use diagnostic and serological tests on campus. The presidents of Purdue University, Brown University and Lane College will testify, along with Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association.

The panel broached the topic during a hearing last month with top federal health officials. Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir, who has overseen the country’s coronavirus testing strategy, said colleges and universities could use testing as a means of surveillance to detect possible cases on campus.

“It is certainly possible to test all of the students, or it is much more likely that there would be a surveillance strategy done where you may test some of the students at different times to give an assurance that there’s no circulation,” Giroir said during the hearing. “That would be done in conjunction with the CDC and the local health department.”

While some institutions are considering screening people as they return to campus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and groups such as the American College Health Association have not recommended that they do so, said Craig Roberts, an epidemiologist serving on the ACHA COVID-19 task force.

“Mass testing doesn’t really make a lot of sense unless you’re going to somehow, once you test people, then keep them away from other people so they don’t get re-exposed or infected the same afternoon,” Roberts said. “It’s not a public health approach that has a lot of science behind it.”

Lowest-risk options

The CDC updated its considerations for institutes of higher education last week, noting that colleges and universities should adhere to their local guidelines. The agency says the lowest-risk options for reopening would be virtual learning and activities and that residence halls should be closed where feasible. Having residence halls filled to a lower capacity with closed shared spaces would be a medium risk, while opening them to full capacity with shared spaces like kitchens or common areas would be the highest risk.

Some institutions such as the University of Notre Dame plan changes to their calendars, starting the fall semester earlier than usual and ending before Thanksgiving. John Jenkins, the Notre Dame president, said such a change, which includes not having a fall break, would limit students leaving and returning to the campus and possibly bringing the virus back with them. Still, students’ education is worth the risk, he argued in a New York Times op-ed last week.

“The pivotal question for us individually and as a society is not whether we should take risks, but what risks are acceptable and why,” he wrote. “Disagreements among us on that question are deep and vigorous, but I’d hope for wide agreement that the education of young people — the future leaders of our society — is worth risking a good deal.”

Similarly, the University of South Carolina said it would cancel this year’s fall break and end face-to-face instruction before Thanksgiving.

Brown University President Christina Paxson, who will testify Thursday, said last month that officials were considering a range of scenarios, including bringing students back to campus this fall under a normal academic calendar, which she said was optimistic and dependent on progress for testing and treatments; changing the calendar to set up three semesters and have students on campus for two of the three throughout the year; or conducting the fall semester remotely. She said officials plan to make a decision by mid-July and last month sent a survey to students about the possibilities.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is tracking more than 840 colleges’ plans for the fall, 66 percent are planning for in-person classes. Another 7 percent are planning for online classes, and 8 percent are proposing a hybrid model. Ten percent are considering a range of scenarios, while 9 percent are waiting to decide.

Challenges for big campuses

While smaller universities like Grinnell may plan to rely heavily on testing, larger campuses or those that are open to a larger city likely won’t be able to do so as easily, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, a higher education advocacy group.

“Many institutions, especially urban public universities, are so large and are so open to the surrounding communities that there is no easy way for them to implement a testing regime, certainly no way to do that without working with the local health officials,” he said.

Such is the case at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. Michael Rao, the university’s president, said the school will do some randomized testing on campus and in residence halls but also has an on-campus medical center where patients and front-line workers would be the first to be tested. Students who show symptoms of the virus would also be in line to be tested, he said.

The campus will rely heavily on students and employees screening and tracking their own symptoms, such as conducting hands-free temperature screenings. Students and employees will also be required to complete an online training related to the virus, and the university is setting up a way for people to do daily monitoring.

“The key to this really is do you trust your community to come together in a way that is of course protecting yourself, but is less self-oriented and more oriented towards can you come together and support each other and really do things you don’t like to do but are in the best interest of other people,” Rao told CQ Roll Call.

The university is also planning to identify a dorm that can be used for isolating infected students. How to isolate students who live on campus is one of the most difficult decisions that colleges face as they plan to reopen, said Roberts, the epidemiologist. Most residence halls aren’t set up so that students have their own rooms or bathrooms, which most experts consider necessary for isolation.

While schools have some experience handling viral outbreaks on their campuses, such as influenza, the current COVID-19 crisis is on an entirely new scale.

“Nobody ever shut down their university; they made accommodations. But it’s a real challenge, so schools are trying to figure out all these novel approaches,” Roberts said. “But everyone’s going to be different. There’s no universal approach to how it should be done.”

Recent Stories

Biden, ‘Big Four’ to meet as spending talks sputter

Alabama IVF ruling spurs a GOP reckoning on conception bills

House to return next week as GOP expects spending bills to pass

FEC reports shine light on Super Tuesday primaries

Editor’s Note: Never mind the Ides of March, beware all of March

Supreme Court to hear arguments on online content moderation