Two weeks ago, US colleges opened their doors to students after months of closure. Last week, many closed them again. What can UK universities like Loughborough learn from their experience?

The US has the highest COVID-19 case number in the world. Figures released by Johns Hopkins University show that the country has now had over 5.6 million cases and 175,000 deaths, with the numbers of both expected to be much higher than reported.

Despite this, the return to universities and colleges has been endorsed by the majority of university presidents, with millions of students returning to study over the last fortnight.  According to Davidson College’s ‘College Crisis Initiative’, almost 2000 colleges and universities are bringing students back to campus, with 1250 offering combinations of in-person and online classes, 578 operating “primarily in-person”, and 73 operating “fully in-person”.

In fact, the numbers of schools intending to run in-person lectures and seminars for their students is steadily increasing, amid encouragement from the President to keep them open to keep students away from families, and in their college bubbles. Earlier in the week, he said that “Instead of saving lives, a decision to close universities could cost lives”.

Finances are also a key reason for many universities to keep their doors physically open to students. Revenue from catering, gyms, and accommodation are expected to drop dramatically at larger universities that stick to online delivery – Johns Hopkins University predict a $375m budget shortfall – leaving them with a big pressure to open despite the ever-rising COVID cases in the country.

However, a growing number of universities are now having to shelve their plans to re-open due to large COVID-19 outbreaks. Last Monday, the University of North Carolina was forced to close its doors with positive rates rising dramatically to 13.6%, up from 2.8% only a week before. Michigan State followed suit the day after, as did the University of Notre Dame due to similar case rises amongst their student population, with 147 community cases reported.

And on Monday, the University of Alabama reported 531 cases in the first week of classes, forcing the city of Tuscaloosa to close bars, pubs and restaurants. Its student press have criticised the university for its poor planning and ‘twisted priorities’, but have since been met by threats from the administration to stay quiet.

So why have these universities seen challenges in re-opening, and how have other colleges avoided the same mistakes?

The Challenges

1. Testing

The University of North Carolina and its 19,000 undergraduates failed at the first hurdle – their lacklustre testing program.

The senior class president, Chris Suggs, told an open faculty meeting that it was as clear as day that a “mass return to campus” would be dangerous without widespread, compulsory testing – tests were only offered on a voluntary basis at UNC, and only at weekends.

The university’s student press called the testing measures a “clusterf**k”, with the university initially chargeing $50 for weekend tests, which were met with long queues and up to a four day wait for results.

As a result, the college is now enforcing a mass move-out, with only international students, athletes, or those going through ‘hardship’ able to remain on campus.

The dramatic events at universities like UNC and Alabama have instilled other universities into action. Louisiana State University installed four rapid testing pods on Friday, providing testing to students and staff seven days a week and creating a capacity of 5,000 a day – although they are some distance off being able to provide regular tests for their 30,000 students and 6,500 staff.

However, without strong federal government guidance, colleges are taking a variety of different paths. The University of Missouri are only testing students who get symptoms whilst on campus, whereas in contrast the University of Illinois are testing all 50,000 students, regardless of symptoms, with capacity for one walk-in test a week.

2. Social Distancing

UNC saw their main outbreaks in four areas – two of which were in large residence halls which were kept to 60% capacity in an attempt to force social distancing.

One student suspected they were exposed at dining halls, where despite staff trying to keep capacity down, “too many” people were allowed in a space where masks are not enforceable. Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, it has been made clear that social distancing is the clear ‘solution’ to the crisis at hand, but the question is now about how this be enforced in a university environment.

The diversity of case numbers in the US has a huge effect on how universities respond to possible outbreaks. In some states such as California, with stay-at-home orders and stringent mask requirements, universities are forced to resort to online learning.

Colleges in large metropolitan areas, including the University of Columbia, New York, have had to close campuses altogether due to the possibility of a large outbreak, whereas institutions in isolated rural areas are seeing a much higher return to campus life – 90% of students are returning at the University of the South in Tennessee.

3. The Students

However, it is likely to be student behaviour that affects case numbers at campuses across the states. One student from Cornell, speaking to the Times, caught students wandering corridors while quarantined, witnessed calls from students clearly at illegal parties, and has observed students who are meant to be in isolation fraternising in each other’s rooms.

Such behaviour can be regulated more whilst on campus, but it is off-campus students that are likely to cause more concern for colleges. Recent videos from several campuses across the country have also shown hundreds of students partying without masks or social distancing.

Whilst staff can’t monitor entire campuses at once, they can rely on students to do it for them. Symptom tracking apps have been introduced in many universities, including at Louisiana State – who implemented theirs on Monday. Students are required to fill out their symptoms to be approved to come onto campus each day, receiving a unique approval QR code to allow access.

One university has even established an anonymous reporting hotline, and Purdue University have suspended 36 students in a week for breaking guidelines. Ohio State have had similar problems, suspending 228 “selfish” students last week before classes had even started due to COVID violations.

It is not in the nature of universities to act as police states, but with neighbouring communities wary of increased spread in their towns and cities and their finances at stake, it is in the interest of the universities to stay cautious and try and prevent the disease’s spread.

Lessons to be Learnt

The US has had over 17 times more cases than the UK, and since the start of summer, case growth seems to have flattened out. However with the opening of schools starting across the country from this week, it is likely that this will begin to increase more rapidly – albeit not to the extent of the US.

Despite this, we can learn some significant lessons from our neighbours across the Atlantic.

  1. Student testing must be both mandatory and regular, to allow universities to prevent asymptomatic spread.
  2. The UK needs a working track and trace app to help universities locate outbreaks.
  3. Students need to have a strong sense of responsibility and abide by restrictions imposed on them by universities.
  4. Masks and social distancing in public areas such as dining halls, lecture theatres, and libraries must be in place from the start of term.

Loughborough have said that they have made face masks compulsory in communal indoor public areas, lecture theatres and corridors, established one-way systems, prevented mass gatherings of parents and family during freshers, and have increased their cleaning regime.

But universities such as Warwick are taking a more hands-on approach, setting up their own ‘Test and Trace’ systemsupported by research from their medical school to track outbreaks, and it is initiatives like this that universities like Loughborough must also take to ensure campuses can remain open throughout the Autumn Term.

Cover Photo by James Willamor / Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0


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