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Campus life sans Covid: A few colleges write the playbook for pandemic success

Juan Perez Jr.

For $ 25 per test, the institute collects samples from colleges and universities and runs them within an average of 24 hours through a genomics lab Broad scientists converted into a coronavirus testing facility. It’s processed more than 2.1 million tests since March. University of Connecticut and University of Massachusetts campuses use Broad’s system, the institute said, along with a group of Ivy League and other private schools.

In central Massachusetts, 1,800 Clark University students must enter a Covid-19 testing facility inside the campus athletic center every three days, flash their identification and probe their own nostrils with a sterile swab as part of a disease suppression plan now projected to cost $ 11 million this year. Students who don’t comply risk forfeited tuition and removal from campus.

“We absolutely could not pull this off without rigorous testing,” Clark University President David Fithian said. “Critics can find plenty of evidence that [reopening] was not the right decision (to reopen), and I would say that’s probably true for certain campuses. I think what our case shows is that you can actually manage it responsibly.”

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Doing so comes with more than a financial cost. The university is foregoing competitive athletics for now. There are no rehearsals for the wind ensemble. And while university officials have yet to decide on spring semester plans, Fithian said he doubts full sports seasons and large indoor gatherings will resume if classes continue.

Schools are finding some success with customized plans based on the nuances of their campus population, said Elizabeth Drexler-Hines, president of the New England College Health Association. New England’s schools can also look to state and local leaders who work closely with public health officials, she said. But schools don’t need to reinvent the fundamental procedures of old-school virus-busting: containment and surveillance.

“We know these things,” Drexler-Hines said. “If there are some pieces of these models that are successful, I really hope those will be looked at to expand if those would work for state governments.”

With all the planning, coordination and expense, university officials hope to avoid uncontrolled outbreaks that halt in-person classes, shut down campus or interrupt major activities like basketball season. Coronavirus infections that collide with potential influenza outbreaks, especially on large campuses near urban areas, could tar a school’s image and decrease enrollment.

“It could go wrong,” said Carol Quillen, president of Davidson College, a small liberal arts school that hosts the College Crisis Initiative’s review of campus coronavirus plans and requires at least once-weekly testing of the nearly 1,800 students living on or near campus.

“I don’t take anything for granted,” she said of a virus management plan expected to cost the North Carolina college nearly $ 10 million this year. “We think we have a system that will let us contain outbreaks, but we are really humble about it and ready to make changes if we need to.”

Colleges in other parts of the country are finding much less success in trying to fend off the virus. An early report from researchers at Davidson and other schools concludes campuses that reopened for in-person classes were associated with a daily increase of more than 3,000 coronavirus cases across the country. Those findings could be critical for administrators who are planning to reopen campuses, researchers said.

“I do see us gathering data that’s useful in helping other kinds of communities plan on returning to a more normal life,” Quillen said. “Secondly, I think we’re learning how to build community in new ways that I think will translate into how we do that post-pandemic and how we can sustain some semblance of normal life, even if we can’t come together as we used to.”

At UConn, President Thomas Katsouleas praised students in an open letter to campus this week. The university’s testing and contact tracing plans are working, he said, while the virus has only seen “minimal” spread to the surrounding community. Large parties have sparked miniature crises at other universities, he wrote, but not at UConn.

A smattering of cases have emerged in UConn residence halls, forcing some dorm residents into minimum two-week quarantines that include more testing and halted in-person classes. A small outbreak at an off-campus apartment complex prompted similar protocols, though campus officials told students that aggressive testing there helped cut the virus’ spread in half.

“While far from being in the clear in terms of remaining open through the Thanksgiving break, we can all be proud of what the UConn community has accomplished so far,” Katsouleas said. “We can get together in person safely: All it takes is a mask and 6 feet.”

Source:Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories

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