Returning to Campus

Private colleges and universities convened task forces in the spring to study the novel coronavirus and present plans to keep campus health and safety as high as possible. However, students were eventually sent home weeks before the end of the 2019-2020 academic year, and plans for major events such as commencement were put on hold.

As the summer progressed, task forces analyzed the growing data on the virus to determine if they could safely reopen campus. Researchers at Harvard and Yale used an analytical modeling approach to determine what screening and isolation programs would keep students at U.S. residential colleges safe and permit the reopening of campuses. Published July 31, 2020, in JAMA Network Open, an open-access journal published by the American Medical Association, the study found “the safe reopening of campuses in Fall 2020 may require screening every 2 days, uncompromising vigilance, and continuous attention to good prevention practices.”

Hand sanitizer stations, increased handwashing, wearing a face covering, limiting class sizes, changing dining protocols and installing no-touch sensors for lighting, handsoap, paper towels and sinks where possible are practices that can reduce the spread of the virus. Researchers indicate following such strict behavioral interventions and testing every 2 days “is estimated to maintain a controllable number of COVID-19 infections” on campus.

Birmingham-Southern College (BSC) is situated on a hilltop west of the city of Birmingham, Alabama. With annual enrollments typically under 1,700 students, the private liberal arts college boasts small class sizes and a self-contained campus. BSC’s “Return to the Hilltop” Plan was unveiled in late June and is considered a work in progress, with changes considered based on statistics from local and state agencies. Like many other private colleges and universities, the plan includes a delayed start to the fall semester, the canceling of fall break, and ending the semester before Thanksgiving. BSC’s plan is based on three pillars: blocking the virus from coming to campus; disrupting the spread of the virus if detected on campus; and isolating the virus upon detection.

Students, faculty, and staff are required to take two tests prior to the first day of classes on August 24. Test 1, the ‘pre-arrival test’, is to be taken no later than 14 days prior to returning to campus. After taking the first test, students are encouraged “to quarantine with their families and use best judgment as to not expose themselves to COVID-19 before returning to campus.” Students are also required to activate and use Healthcheck, a daily assessment tool to track symptoms and possible exposure to the virus.

Test 2 is administered on campus. Campus staff, residence life staff, student orientation leaders, and faculty take Test 2 on a staggered schedule beginning mid-August. Students begin the testing process during their designated move-in day—Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday. Results from this particular test, known as a PCR test (polymerase chain reaction), are not known for 48 hours. Therefore, all students who plan to live on campus are instructed to quarantine in their rooms after moving in until test results are available. Commuters are asked to leave campus and quarantine until test results are known.

With a state population density far less than in Alabama, officials at Carroll College in Montana have a slightly different approach to reopening campus. Located in Helena, Carroll also has enrollments under 1,700 students and is relatively self-contained. Campus leaders plan for its student body to return to campus on August 17. The “Marching Back Plan” is a phased approach of policies and protocols developed to guide a cautious reopening of campus. These policies are similar to those stated above regarding behavioral changes in classrooms, dorm rooms, dining halls, and public spaces.

Virus testing protocols are designed to “quickly mitigate the spread of the virus at Carroll College and ensure an in-person and healthy opening” for the campus. A pilot testing program began August 3. Students are tested when they move in. Students may be tested 72 hours prior to returning to campus and bring the results to health services to avoid campus testing. Student-athletes will be tested 5 days before competition and be virus-free in order to participate. Following state guidelines, Carroll College will test 200 students per week in an effort to ensure the campus is free of the virus.

This new test does not apply to every student at every institution of higher education. Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, is similar in size to BSC and Carroll College. Drew’s administration had planned on opening campus with similar health and safety standards in place. However, a higher population density relates to higher cases in the area, and state and federal officials imposed travel restrictions for New Jersey.

Drew University administration decided in early August to postpone the opening of campus until spring. The university acknowledged that plans to open campus “were subject to the vagaries of this quickly evolving health crisis” and, that an “all virtual model will allow us to provide a stable and engaged educational experience” for the fall semester.

Every campus is committed to the health and safety of their students. Decisions regarding the reopening of campus are taken very seriously and with the local and state community in mind. In addition to behavioral changes, the regular testing of students, faculty, and staff could mitigate the spread of the virus, and perhaps by the spring of 2021, all students can return to their campus home.


About the Author
PUPN staff writer Lisa Gibbs earned her Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration in 2018. She is an advocate for arts, particularly dance, in education and for increasing the financial well-being of artists through financial education.