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We are a mixed COVID-19 college student household. My older daughter will start graduate school at home as a remote learner, while my younger daughter will begin her junior year back on campus. 

This divergent approach across the two universities that my kids attend has me pondering the arguments for and against bring students back to campus.

The Argument for Bringing (Some) Students Back to Campus:

The argument for bringing some portion of students back to campus built on the idea that a school can accomplish the dual goals restarting some form of residential learning, while also keeping everyone safe. This line of action seeks to find a balance between the risk of COVID-19 spread and the benefits of residential education. Schools that are walking this line are doing so in the belief that the responsibility to keep everyone safe need not necessarily preclude the possibility of finding a path to some form of campus-based operations. Each school will seek to accomplish safety goals and the resumption of residential education differently, depending on their local conditions, constraints, culture, and resources.  

Plans to keep students, faculty, staff, and the surrounding community safe from COVID-19 are being designed around strategies for testing, social distancing, and de-densification. In some cases, students will be tested at home before returning to campus. Most students will be tested once they arrive on campus and then randomly throughout the semester. Students will quarantine in their rooms for two weeks prior to the start of any campus educational or co-curricular activities. During this time, meals will be eaten in dorm rooms, served in grab-and-go bags. There seems to be a mix of residence hall strategies being rolled out across higher education. Some schools are moving to have on-campus students live only in singles, accomplishing this by bringing back portions of their student bodies. Other schools are moving ahead with doubles. (I have not heard of triples or higher).

For universities inviting students back to campus, most classes in the fall will still be delivered online. Instead of learning online from home, many students at schools resuming residential operations will be studying from their dorm rooms or off-campus apartments. Only some classes will include face-to-face meetings. Schools that are bringing students back to campus will seek to enforce social distancing guidelines through education, nudges, rules, and enforcement. Colleges are creating online learning materials and written pledges that students must sign about safe COVID-19 behavior. If courses are run with face-to-face components, then the number of students per classroom will be reduced (often dramatically) to allow for distancing. Students who show symptoms or test positive will be quarantined in residence halls or other places that are being set-aside for this eventuality. To reduce student circulation, fall breaks will be eliminated. At many schools, the in-person residential portion of the semester will end at Thanksgiving, with students finishing the semester remotely.

Colleges and universities that are bringing some portion of their students back to campus are making a judgment that they will anticipate and avoid the factors that enable disease transmission and quickly adapt if students, faculty, or staff begin to test positive. The levels of vigilance will be high, and schools will be ready to quarantine and separate campus community members if necessary. If necessary, schools starting the fall with students on campus can pivot again - if circumstances dictate - back to fully remote learning.

The argument for bringing students back to campus on the fall rests the calculations that the risks are known and manageable, and the rewards are worth managing and accepting those risks. My read on schools that are moving forward with some form of students-in-residence in the fall is that they are proceeding with health protection as the absolute priority. Campus activities, both curricular and co-curricular, with be very different than they were in the past. The classroom will mostly, although not wholly, be digital and not physical. Social and athletic events, activities, and gatherings will either not occur - or occur in ways that severely limit size and density. Schools with students back on campus will seek to discover how to gain some of the advantages inherent in residential education, while also working to ensure that everyone stays safe.

The Argument Against Bringing Any Students Back to Campus:

The argument against bringing students back to campus also has risk at its core. This line of thinking is that the risks of having any significant portion of students back to campus are not worth the rewards that this strategy will bring. Those skeptical of a back-to-campus plan will point out that these institutional plans were made before COVID-19 surged in many US states. In the early summer, the assumption was that stay-at-home orders would serve to lower community spread, enabling a controlled re-opening in the fall.

The complete lack of federal leadership and the too early re-openings of many states were not part of the calculus for fall back-to-campus plans. A decision to reverse the plans to bring students back to campus is one, so the argument goes, recognizing the changing public health situation in the US. Unlike other countries, the COVID-19 response in the US became politicized. States were left to mount their own response to the pandemic, leading to variation in guidelines for business re-openings, mask-wearing, and other public health measures.

The worries about resuming residential education in the fall go beyond immediate concerns for students. By bringing students back to campus, the argument goes that individual schools may be contributing to an overall less-favorable public health environment. These concerns go beyond the disproportionate dangers that COVID-19 poses to faculty and staff, due to their age and other potential risk factors. The worry is that no matter how developed the testing, social distancing, and de-densification strategies are, that residential learning will inevitably contribute to the spread of COVID-19. This certainty of campus COVID-19 spread, so the argument goes, is inevitable because college students will not adhere to social distancing and de-densification guidelines. Despite educational efforts and the enforcement of rules, students will gather and mix. Surveillance and enforcement may push student social life underground, but it will not eliminate it.

If these concerns about the spread of COVID-19 on campuses that bring back students in the fall come to pass, it is unknown what the impact will be on population health. It may be that plans to quickly identify and quarantine students that contract COVID-19 will reduce community spread. Efforts to keep faculty and staff safe through de-densification, masks, and digitally-mediated interactions may be effective. However, the argument against bringing a significant number of students back to campus hinges on the conclusion that the benefits do not outweigh the risks.

From a population health perspective, the argument is that activities that bring together large numbers of people in close proximity should be limited, if at all possible. Some in-person activities, such as what occurs in hospitals, must continue. But during a time of rising community spread and COVID-19 transmission, any activities that can be carried out remotely and without increasing population density and interaction should be.

Which argument do you find more persuasive?

Please write to us at to let us know if you think that colleges and universities should be bringing significant numbers of students back to campus this fall.

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