Small Colleges Try to Contain COVID Clusters

Small colleges are seeing their share of COVID-19 outbreaks. Will small scale make containment easier than it's proving to be at large universities with more resources?

September 8, 2020
 
Larry Bartel/Hesston College
Students move in at Hesston College.

Last week, Hesston College reported five students tested positive for COVID-19. The tiny Mennonite college in Hesston, Kan., had tested 17 students in total. The college tested four additional students by the end of the week, yielding two more positive results.

Compared with the hundreds of positive cases reported at large colleges across the country in recent weeks, Hesston’s seven infections are small potatoes. Ohio State University reported more than 800 infections as of last week. Temple University shut down in-person instruction after its case total climbed to 212 and the Philadelphia Health Commissioner declared an outbreak on campus. The University of South Carolina has had more than 1,000 infections since Aug. 1.

But seven is a big number at Hesston. The college enrolls only 331 students, meaning that more than 2 percent of students have or have had the coronavirus since the fall term began Aug. 17. Similar rates have already prompted other colleges to shut down in-person operations this fall.

But Hesston and Ohio State are apples and oranges. Researchers have found that COVID-19 likely spreads differently on small, tightly knit residential campuses like Hesston’s than it does at a large urban university, on which most COVID-19 modeling studies have been focused.

Nicole Eikmeier, an assistant professor of computer science at Grinnell College, recently published a paper about modeling COVID-19 spread on small residential campuses. In her research, she made sure to account for the hallmarks of a small college: a single dining hall, one campus library and the fact that the entire student population mixes with each other more than at a large urban university.

Hesston fits this profile. Students eat at the Bontrager Student Center Dining Hall. They study at the Mary Miller Library. Nathan Bartel, the college’s director of marketing and communications, described the college as a “high-touch institution.” Most students live on campus, and the faculty, staff and administrators know each student by name, he said.

Closing communal spaces like the dining hall or the library can actually increase infections on small campuses in some scenarios, Eikmeier and her colleagues found.

“If we close a building such as the library or the dining hall, we might assume that students go back to their dorm room and sit alone, but that might not be true,” Eikmeier said. “If students get their food and go sit with all of their friends or socialize during that time, it actually could increase the number of cases.”

Eikmeier and her colleagues determined that two interventions were most effective in limiting viral spread: face-mask compliance and regular, comprehensive testing.

For the most part, face-mask compliance is up to the students. Strict policies can curb spread somewhat, the study shows, but student behavior and choices play a big role in the effectiveness of any COVID-19 precaution policies.

“If students do choose to socialize less and wear their mask at all times while socializing and in the common spaces of their dorm rooms, it does make a big difference,” Eikmeier said.

Not all colleges have accounted for students who break the rules. On a recent press call, administrators at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign said they were surprised that some students were not following quarantine and contract-tracing requirements. Campus case numbers are on the rise “due to unsafe behavior by a number of undergraduate students,” the university said in a press release.

Bartel said that Hesston’s small campus lends itself to good compliance with COVID-19 policies.

“The college's culture of mutual accountability enables members of the campus community to identify and engage those who aren't following COVID-19 protocols,” Bartel said in an email.

At minimum, colleges should test at least 25 percent of the student body every week, Eikmeier and her colleagues write.

“Without testing at or above this level, our results suggest that it will be hard to control COVID-19 spread,” the study says.

This is true for larger colleges, too. John Drake, an ecology professor at the University of Georgia's school of ecology, has studied COVID-19 models for that university. He describes testing as a race.

“Because you’re going to have some transmission anyway, that means you have to test at some frequency that you find the people who are infected and don’t know it -- faster than, on average, they give rise to secondary cases,” Drake said. “It’s kind of a race between how quickly you can remove people from the population that have infections versus their infecting other people.”

Regular testing protocols have been tricky to implement at many colleges. Widespread, repeated testing comes with a price tag that not all colleges are able to pay. At Hesston, students are only tested when they report symptoms, and the cost of the tests is covered by students’ insurance. In the event that a student is uninsured and cannot afford a test, the college’s emergency fund covers testing. As a result, asymptomatic cases could go undetected at the college.

Hartwick College, a small private college in Oneonta, N.Y., tests more people more frequently. All students, faculty and staff are tested once every two weeks, and the college will continue to do so until Nov. 20, when students depart for the semester. So far, five out of more than 1,100 students have tested positive. The college pays for any testing expenses not covered by a student’s health insurance. With only five reported cases, the college switched to remote learning on Sept. 1, citing a steep increase in cases in Oneonta.

Vassar College, significantly larger than Hesston and Hartwick but still described as a small liberal arts college, has implemented a robust testing protocol of the kind pointed to in Eikmeier’s research as one of the most effective ways to curb COVID-19 spread on small campuses.

“We have to really manage two things: we have to be sure that we don’t have COVID coming in from outside the campus, and we have to be sure that it’s not spreading once it’s on the campus,” said Elizabeth Bradley, president of Vassar. “Critical to both of those is prompt, frequent, rapid testing.”

Upon arrival, all students were required to produce a negative COVID-19 test result. If they didn’t, they had to quarantine off campus for two weeks. Students were also tested again on arrival, and again seven days later, and again 14 days after that. Student arrivals were staggered across three weeks, so the college is still conducting hundreds of tests every day. Bradley said the testing, personal protective equipment and other COVID-19 preparations were a “substantial investment.”

As of Thursday, Vassar had identified 22 cases. All but two of the cases were asymptomatic.

But Vassar is wealthy. The college has a $1.1 billion endowment and reported nearly $200 million in operating expenses in fiscal 2018. Hesston’s endowment is just under $12 million, and the college spent $17.5 million on operating expenses in fiscal 2018. Hartwick sits on a $76.7 million endowment and had an operating budget of $77.9 million.

Some small colleges like Vassar are attempting to sequester the student body to keep COVID-19 from getting in or out of campus. This strategy works only for colleges in nonurban areas with a distinct separation from the general public.

“In a large urban area, the first things that one sees is you’ve got this issue of students being in touch with the public all the time, back and forth, back and forth -- it’s like one population in the city,” Bradley said. “Whereas on a smaller campus of usually liberal arts colleges, away from a city, they can be self-contained and therefore you can put a boundary around them.”

Bradley also echoed Bartel’s comment that it’s easy to appeal to students’ responsibility to their community at a college where students know each other and their professors.

“We have a kind of motto on campus now that’s ‘we proceeds me.’ It’s about how to live in an interconnected world with care and recognizing that our destinies are tied,” Bradley said.

Ultimately, Drake said, student behavior will dictate whether colleges large and small will make it through the semester with few COVID-19 cases.

“As one of my colleagues is fond of saying: the fact that we’ve had a major epidemic is not inevitable -- it was based on people’s choices,” Drake said. “What we’re seeing in the national news about cases on college campuses suggests that people are not making good choices, and I suspect in many cases -- that’s students.”

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