How Colleges Can Spring Forward

David Wippman and Glenn C. Altschuler share five coronavirus lessons learned from the fall that offer a road map for the spring semester.

January 11, 2021
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Reopening colleges and universities for in-person instruction last fall was a gamble. Some institutions failed spectacularly, with large outbreaks forcing a prompt return to remote learning. But many kept case numbers low and their communities intact -- our own, Hamilton College and Cornell University, included. The experience offers a road map for the spring semester. Here are five lessons we learned from the fall.

Lesson 1: Testing is essential, and frequency matters. Colleges and universities adopted a wide range of strategies this fall, involving a mix of PCR, antigen and wastewater tests. On average, institutions testing all students, faculty members and administrators twice a week or more had the lowest number of positive cases. Frequent testing, when coupled with quick turnaround times, enabled them to catch asymptomatic cases early.

Combined with robust contact tracing, such testing permits rapid isolation of infected individuals and quarantine of close contacts, breaking transmission chains before the virus can spread widely. Less intensive strategies -- for example, testing segments of the community on a rotating basis combined with wastewater sampling -- can work almost as well if institutions find universal twice-a-week testing too expensive, but testing regimens and other safety protocols must be sufficiently robust to prevent large outbreaks.

Lesson 2: Campuses following appropriate protocols turned out to be surprisingly safe spaces. According to a chart New York governor Andrew Cuomo recently released, “higher education student” came in a distant third (2 percent) as a source of COVID exposure, well behind “households/social gatherings” (74 percent) and “health-care delivery” (8 percent). Most colleges and universities offering in-person education followed a standard playbook, mandating mask wearing and physical distancing, enhanced ventilation and filtration in campus buildings, and rigorous cleaning schedules. They also reduced density in classrooms, dining halls and other campus facilities.

Combined with adequate testing, these protocols work. There was little if any evidence of virus transmission in classrooms or dining halls. Even residence halls posed only modest risks, and whether institutions brought back all or only some of their students seemed to make little difference. Outbreaks came mostly from off-campus parties and other large gatherings outside the direct control of college officials.

Lesson 3: Culture is crucial. Despite widespread skepticism, most students followed campus pandemic protocols most of the time. Although some students insisted on partying like it was 2019, particularly at large universities with a robust fraternity and sorority culture, gatherings stayed small and under control at many institutions. Those colleges and universities cultivated a culture of compliance, encouraging a we-are-all-in-this-together approach. As with most public health campaigns, engaging students as partners worked better than blaming and shaming.

Lesson 4: Implementing the changes needed to operate safely was an enormous challenge, but managing the human and emotional toll proved even harder. All the physical, logistical and organizational measures were, in many ways, the least of it. Most institutions eliminated fall breaks to reduce opportunities for risky off-campus travel. Many restricted or limited extracurricular activities that enable students to relieve stress and socialize with peers, from athletic competitions to a cappella concerts, because of the risks large gatherings posed. Physical distancing meant fewer social connections, in class and out.

Students worried they might test positive and be placed in isolation. They feared being responsible for putting close friends into quarantine. As layoffs mounted throughout the country, financial hardships compounded concerns about the health of family and friends. All of this played out against a backdrop of protests and arguments over systemic racism and the presidential election. For many students, fall 2020 felt like the longest, hardest, most stressful semester ever.

Faculty members and administrators felt much the same way. Faculty redesigned courses for a mix of remote, in-person and hybrid learning; mastered new technologies; and found new ways to advise and connect with students. Administrators reinvented almost every aspect of campus operations. On top of the strain of managing in a new abnormal, they all grappled with anxiety over the risks to their own health, the health of family and friends, social justice issues, and possible layoffs and furloughs.

As colleges and universities plan for in-person learning this spring, they should consider ramping up mental health services, peer counseling and wellness programming for students and employees. They should also consider asking faculty members to be more flexible on assignments and deadlines, giving students the option to convert one or more grades to pass-fail after seeing the grade, adding “wellness days” into the academic calendar, and offering a week with classes but little or no homework.

Lesson 5: In a pandemic, geography is destiny. Small residential colleges in rural areas can more readily limit contact with the surrounding community than large, urban universities. The greater the rate of community spread, the greater the impact of that difference. A look at the outcomes for members of the New England Small College Athletic Conference, a group of liberal arts colleges including Hamilton College, suggests that location was, in fact, the main driver of higher case numbers.

Every decision about reopening this spring demands balancing risks and rewards. Students and faculty do better educationally, and colleges do better financially, with in-person education. We are confident colleges and universities can operate safely this spring, with one caveat. When students returned in August, case numbers nationally were far lower than they are now, and those numbers may be higher still when students come back this month. Colleges and universities must take that into account. Hamilton, for example, will test all students three times a week at the outset, rather than twice a week as it did in the fall.

Perhaps we will get lucky and the current coronavirus surge will subside. But then again, as baseball player and sports executive Branch Rickey taught a generation of fans, “Luck is the residue of design.”

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David Wippman is the president of Hamilton College. Glenn C. Altschuler is a professor of American studies at Cornell University.

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