U.S. Colleges: What to Do With Students and Coronavirus on Campus?

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A consensus is building among public health experts that it’s better to keep university students on campus after a Covid-19 outbreak rather than send them home as many are doing.

It’s easier to isolate sick or exposed students and trace their contacts if they stay put, said Ravina Kullar, epidemiologist and spokesperson for Infectious Diseases Society of America. Sending students home risks exposing other people there as well as along the way, and makes contact tracing all but impossible.

“There’s just inevitably going to be an outbreak,” she said. “Colleges need to take on the burden of having these students kept at their campus and taking care of them.”

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was one of the first to reverse in-person learning, sending students home to complete the semester remotely after the school had an outbreak. Colleges including Towson University and East Carolina University have done the same.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Aug. 27 that schools in the state would switch to online learning for two weeks if they record 100 cases or 5% of the population gets infected, keeping students in place while tamping the virus’s spread. The University of Notre Dame adopted the same strategy, and announced Friday that it will resume in-person classes on Sept. 2.

University Of North Carolina GETTY sub

Students walk on campus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Aug. 18.

Photographer: Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump spoke of the risk this month while urging campuses to reopen, saying that sending students home after an outbreak could put relatives at risk. “Instead of saving lives, a decision to close universities could cost lives,” he said.

Notre Dame President John Jenkins had initially leaned toward clearing the campus when cases shot up to 147 less than two weeks after the first person was diagnosed. The county’s deputy health officer, Mark Fox, persuaded him to make classes remote and clamp down on interactions first to see if that could slow the spread.

Notre Dame had a solid plan for reopening its campus, Fox said. The challenge was the magnitude and the velocity of cases, he said. When it hit, the school ramped up testing, added more isolation beds and expanded contact tracing. Together with tight restrictions on interactions between those living on and off campus, Notre Dame slowed cases from jumping to communities surrounding the school.

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For schools that send students home, contact tracing to help ensure they and their communities stay safe gets harder, especially for out-of-state students.

If students live relatively nearby or are in-state, tracers can do their job, said Howard Koh, former assistant secretary for health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health professor. If students leave the state to go home, it’s less effective.

“That will make the job very difficult, if not impossible,” he said.