Colleges have been a major site of COVID-19 spread throughout the pandemic. Some universities moved online for the fall semester to avoid the damage. Others tried and failed to make in-person instruction work, like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which moved undergraduate classes online after a 13.6-percent positive test rate in the first week of school. More than 321,000 students and employees have tested positive for COVID-19 at more than 1,700-plus colleges across the country, according to the New York Times tracker. Some small colleges and large universities, however, were able to push through the semester without an overload of cases, and are now at a crossroads over what to do for the holidays. Schools like Bard College at Simon’s Rock and the University of Missouri cancelled in-person classes after Thanksgiving to ease their coronavirus burden. But they took very different paths to reach that decision.
Colleges’ case numbers have the potential to rise dramatically with holiday travel. “When you send students back out all over the country, the risk is higher when they come back,” says Georges Benjamin, a physician and the executive director of the American Public Health Association. That would be the case even if community transmission was low. But record-breaking case numbers over the past several weeks have raised the stakes for schools and their surrounding locales. For the remainder of the fall semester into the spring semester, campuses are going to have to rethink how they approach the pandemic, Benjamin says.
At Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, incoming students quarantined in their dorm rooms for more than a week, then were allowed scheduled time outside with dormmates in an expanded quarantine. Students at the liberal arts school took a self-swab test monitored by a trained professional four times during this period, says John Weinstien, provost and vice president of Simon’s Rock. But it would be difficult and expensive to repeat that quarantine and testing scheme post-Thanksgiving just so students could be on campus for the final few weeks of the semester. So the college shifted classes to start earlier in August, leaving fewer online lectures and exams on the schedule in December.
The Simon’s Rock protocol has worked without a doubt. The school conducted weekly tests throughout the semester, but not a single student living on campus tested positive. However, two did tested positive after returning home for Thanksgiving. Both of those students could have brought COVID-19 back to the college if they had returned.
Whereas Simon’s Rock has planned since the beginning of the semester to cut off in-person classes after Thanksgiving, some schools came to that conclusion shortly before the holiday. The University of Missouri made the call two weeks before break—not because it worried that student cases would spiral out of control, but because the surrounding city of Columbia’s health care system was strained, says Christian Basi, director of media relations at the university. Only four students on campus have been hospitalized for COVID-19 since August 19, but that still means drawing time away from contact tracers and case investigators who are serving the larger community. “We’re going to be a good neighbor,” Basi says. Although in-person classes are cancelled, some students have remained on campus for internet access and to continue their jobs at the university or in the community.
The University of Missouri had 26,964 students take in-person classes this semester. Of that group, 2,523 have tested positive for COVID-19. Cases peaked after Labor Day with a high of 683 active cases at one time, or about 2.5 percent of the student body. But cases dropped dramatically and stayed low after mid-September. “Our strategy was to assume that everybody had it,” Basi says. The administration prohibited tailgating at football games and limited most university events to a maximum of 20 people. It did, however, keep the gym open and allow fans in the stands for fall sports. And while it didn’t continue mass testing throughout the semester, it took social distancing and mask protocols seriously, Basi says, and even expelled two students who flouted the rules.
Stopping COVID-19 transmission is a completely different game for small and large universities. “Size matters; diversity of where the student body comes from matters,” Benjamin says. “With a smaller student body and smaller faculty, you can get your message out a little easier.” Space matters, too. Simon’s Rock had about 300 students on campus, more than 200 employees, and 275 acres of land—nearly one acre per student, with lots of opportunity to spread out. The University of Missouri had 27,000 students and about 17,000 employees on 1,262 acres. That student body size was too large for the administration to coordinate and enforce a full-on quarantine for incoming students, Basi says. And at Simon’s Rock, Weinstein says, students aren’t partiers. There are no sororities or fraternities, and everyone knows everyone else, so there’s a culture of accountability. The town is about two miles away from campus, which means that students stick to the college and don’t interact much with locals. But the University of Missouri is a major hub in Columbia, which has already seen high rates of COVID-19.
Both colleges are currently planning on inviting students back to campus for the spring semester. Simon’s Rock will largely stick to the same protocols; the University of Missouri, on the other hand, is banking on adaptability. A team of local partners, public health specialists, and other experts meets every day to discuss health and safety on campus. Just like they were flexible and cancelled in-person classes after Thanksgiving when the community needed it, university leaders ready to scrap their plans at any moment. “We could very easily change our decision,” Basi says, “five minutes, two weeks, or a month later based on what happens.”