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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded the American College Health Association $450,000 to launch a new Higher Education COVID-19 Community of Practice aimed at sharing information across campuses about strategies for containing the coronavirus.
The new effort will focus on steps colleges can take to control virus spread.
Elements of the community of practice -- essentially an online repository of resources -- include a discussion board and a twice-monthly webinar series, both of which have already launched, as well as a planned tool kit for campuses interested in creating student public health ambassador programs. Other elements will include a searchable online database where colleges can upload information about their practices.
The new initiative comes more than a year into the pandemic. Heather Zesiger, the project director for the community of practice, said the ACHA received notice of the grant in late March.
The grant puts the association in a good position to help colleges plan for next fall, when it's expected that many more students, faculty members and staff members will be vaccinated, Zesiger said. More than a dozen colleges have already announced vaccination requirements, but colleges' ability to impose such requirements is likely to look very different across different states and political contexts.
Colleges will likely need to continue mitigation strategies this fall, Zesiger said.
“We don’t know what campuses will reach herd immunity for their population, and if they do it’s not necessarily true that their surrounding community will reach herd immunity or vice versa,” Zesiger said. “There could also be hot spots for variants, so there could be the need once things open to shift back to some of the practices we’ve been using for the past year.”
As the CDC releases guidance for vaccinated individuals, one goal of the initiative will be to make this guidance relevant for colleges, Zesiger said.
Zesiger said the CDC grant is for one year with the possibility of renewal.
"Hopefully we’ll be able to keep going and really hone in then on what the challenges and barriers are in kind of a post-vaccination situation," Zesiger said. "We know it’s always evolving. We’re not done."
So far, questions on the already-launched discussion board have focused on issues like when restrictions on university-sponsored travel can be lifted or whether colleges are requiring students to attend an online training on COVID protocols prior to coming to campus, Zesiger said. Any employee affiliated with a college, including students, can participate in the forum, she said.
Recent webinars focused on topics including public health considerations in deciding whether to hold in-person commencements; COVID mitigation strategies at small, rural and medium-size institutions; and developments in rapid testing and other forms of surveillance testing. Data published last week in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report show that 49 percent of colleges are doing any surveillance testing of asymptomatic students this spring, despite the fact that research suggests that more than half of transmissions come from asymptomatic individuals.
In launching the community of practice, ACHA has partnered with the American Council on Education and other associations, including groups for professionals in student affairs, university housing, facilities management and collegiate recreation.
The ACHA initiative will not be the only clearinghouse for information on campus COVID mitigation strategies. President Biden directed the U.S. Department of Education to create a Safer Schools and Campuses Best Practices Clearinghouse in a Jan. 21 executive order. The Education Department did not immediately return a message Monday afternoon seeking information on when that planned clearinghouse will be online.
College officials have a continued need for resources where they can share information, said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.
"The character of this pandemic continues to evolve so that the information they had eight months ago is not the same information with this pandemic today," he said. "It will continue to evolve. There will continue to need to be a mechanism to disseminate, bring people up to speed and educate folks about what we now know and what the state of the art is."