When Covid-19 struck the United States, it touched nearly every aspect of American life. Institutes of higher learning are no exception. With the pandemic still surging, colleges and universities across the country continue to grapple with a seemingly impossible dilemma—that is, how to provide engaging, effective academic instruction on campus while preventing students from being exposed to the novel coronavirus.
Related: CDC: Considerations for Institutes of Higher Education
1. Restrict Campus Access
Traditionally, colleges in the U.S. have been places filled with a bustling activity where visitors often come and go as they please. Unfortunately, the current public health crisis has quieted the quads and lecture halls of universities nationwide. Their once vibrant atmospheres have been sacrificed to some degree in exchange for safe havens in which students are protected from the outside world. Restricting campus access was one of the very first things schools began to do to protect their students and faculty members from unnecessary exposure to Covid-19, and it remains a fundamental safeguard.
Various colleges and universities have implemented campus access restrictions in different ways, and their approaches are continually evolving as the pandemic surges and wanes. For some schools, these restrictions include banning visitors, requiring student quarantine upon arrival to campus, and providing remote learning opportunities to certain students. Other schools are restricting student movement outside of campus as well. Students at Williams College in Massachusetts, for example, are only allowed to leave campus for essential activities.
2. Require a Daily Health Check
As an extension of their campus access restrictions, many colleges have implemented a required daily health check for all students who plan to attend classes on campus. To complete the daily health check, students must self-assess any coronavirus symptoms and report them via an online form. They will then be directed to either stay home and/or contact a healthcare provider or proceed to class. The daily health check requirement is intended to help students remain mindful about their own health and protect other students from exposure to the virus by symptomatic classmates.
3. Test, Test, and Retest
Although schools across the nation have developed unique Covid-19 testing protocols for their students, colleges and universities’ consensus is a “more is better” approach. In addition to required testing before returning to campus, students are expected to be re-tested at routine intervals, whether or not they show symptoms of the virus.
Schools with the most robust testing procedures categorize students’ testing needs based on how often they interact with campus facilities. For example, a student who takes most of his or her classes online and only comes to campus once a week will be tested less frequently than a student who lives on campus and attends most classes in person.
Even for students living on campus, though, the frequency of testing will vary by school. For instance, UNC-Chapel Hill recommends their on-campus students be tested every 5-9 days while Northeastern University requires all full-time undergraduate students to be tested once every three days.
Related: NPR: Most Colleges Aren’t Aggressively Testing Students
4. Implement Contact Tracing
Contact tracing—the process of identifying close contacts of an individual infected with the novel coronavirus—has been widely adopted as a principal strategy for mitigating the spread of Covid-19 throughout the nation. Colleges and universities should use a similar protocol for identifying close contacts of any students or faculty members who test positive for Covid-19.
Many schools around the country have established comprehensive contact tracing guidelines. Those who have excelled in this area of their coronavirus response have even established apps that notify students of any potential exposure to the virus. Georgia Tech’s contact tracing app—called NOVID—leverages a phone’s Bluetooth technology to take note of other devices that are within six feet for more than 15 minutes and identifies the phone’s user as a close contact.
Related: Georgia Tech: Contact Tracing
5. Isolate and Quarantine Sick Students
In the case of a positive Covid-19 test result, schools have a responsibility to isolate and quarantine the sick student for the safety of other students and staff members. Students who have been identified as close contacts of the infected students should also be notified and instructed to self-quarantine. Schools with the resources to do so should provide a quarantine space for students and offer them support services as they recover from the coronavirus. The University of Virginia is among several schools that are doing this well; quarantined students at UVA receive regular check-ups from Student Health and Wellness medical staff and access to virtual support groups from the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services.
Related: University of Virginia: Resources for Coping With Quarantine and Isolation
6. Enhance Cleaning and Sanitation Protocols
Most colleges already have a dedicated janitorial staff tasked with cleaning classrooms and campus facilities regularly. Now that Covid-19 transmission is a concern, schools are doubling down on efforts to keep buildings and surfaces disinfected. Most are complying with CDC recommendations by thoroughly cleaning facilities once per day and between use when possible. Others, like Columbia University, are going above and beyond by using enhanced sanitation methods such as fogging and electrostatic cleaning.
Numerous schools are eliciting their students’ help, ensuring that the campus remains thoroughly sanitized, too. By strategically placing cleaning materials, including disposable antibacterial wipes around campus, these colleges and universities ensure students are equipped to clean their own spaces such as desks, tables, dining areas, and other frequently-used surfaces.
Related: Covid-19 Resource Guide for the Columbia Community: Cleaning and Disinfecting
7. Reduce Dorm Density
For many students considering a return to campus amid the pandemic, visions of packed dormitories gave them pause. Thus, college and university administrators knew that the number of students living in residence halls on campus would likely need to be decreased significantly for students to safely return to school. After all, reducing the number of students living in college dorms enables schools to accommodate and enforce proper social distancing. That’s why some have lifted the mandatory on-campus housing requirement for incoming first-year students, allowing these students to live off-campus during the pandemic. Others have eliminated triple and quadruple-occupancy dorms, meaning students are more likely to have just one roommate or even live alone.
In Washington, D.C., American University has slashed its on-campus occupancy by half, insisting on one student per dorm room amid the pandemic. Northeastern University has approached the task of reducing dorm density a bit differently. Instead of decreasing the number of residential students, the school has chosen to secure more space for its on-campus students by partnering with nearby hotels and apartment complexes.
Related: Washington Post: Fewer Roommates in the Fall
8. Make Dining Safer
The CDC has identified communal dining halls as potentially high-risk settings for coronavirus transmission on college campuses. To reduce the risk, colleges and universities have developed various policies regarding their food services. For the most part, buffets and other self-serve options have been eliminated and replaced by pre-plated and packaged options. Students have more options to “grab and go,” and seating within dining halls is limited to accommodate sufficient social distancing. Hand sanitizer dispensers are strategically placed around dining halls for use by faculty and students before, during, and after eating. The CDC also recommends that universities utilize contactless payment systems in all food service contexts.
Related: CNN: College Dining Will Look Completely Different This Fall
9. Re-Design Classrooms
One of the chief concerns about students returning to campus amid a global pandemic is how they will coexist within a classroom environment without potentially exposing each other to the coronavirus. One way colleges and universities are navigating this challenge is by redesigning their classroom environments to accommodate proper social distancing. Creating space between desks, taping off rows in lecture halls, or migrating smaller classes to larger rooms depends on the individual school and classroom.
Some colleges and universities are taking creative measures to increase useable classroom space on campus. For instance, the University of Chicago has installed heated tents across its campus for use as outdoor classrooms and event spaces.
Related: The University of Chicago: Facilities Services
10. Provide Mental Health and Wellness Resources
The coronavirus itself isn’t the only significant danger the pandemic poses. The added stress of avoiding infection while earning a degree can be overwhelming for many college students. For those with pre-existing mental health issues, the anxiety can be crippling. That’s why it’s imperative that colleges and universities offer resources for students in the area of mental health and wellness. Schools excelling in this particular category of their Covid response are providing increased psychological counseling opportunities for students, including individual and group therapy options. Additionally, these schools are fighting the pandemic’s collective toll on their student body’s mental health on the informational front, creating webinars, expert forums, and other instructional resources to address coping skills and give students an outlet to discuss their feelings.
Related: CDC: Coronavirus Disease 2019—Coping With Stress
Like many other societal pillars, our nation’s higher learning institutes have been shaken to their core by this unprecedented global health crisis. However, the way American colleges and universities have responded to the pandemic has proven their resiliency and their dedication to both their students and society at large. As a result of their perseverance and hard work, students and their families can rest a little easier knowing that the cost of a college education doesn’t have to include unnecessary risk and exposure.
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