The Intersection

COVID-19 Procedures in Higher Education

January 20, 2021

The Challenge

Last spring, the COVID-19 pandemic quickly swept across the country forcing many institutions of higher education (IHEs) to send students home and transition to online instruction. Left to grapple with the unprecedented consequences of the pandemic, IHEs have had to learn difficult lessons in terms of how to successfully adapt the traditional college experience amidst a challenging global health crisis.

Due to financial hardship and pressure from both students and donors, many IHEs attempted to reopen their campuses for in-person instruction for the fall 2020 semester. Unfortunately, with little support from state and federal agencies, coupled with minimal financial support for testing procedures, many IHEs struggled to successfully transition back to traditional, on-campus learning. While some IHEs, such as Boston University, simply delayed the start of their fall semester, others, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, experienced large outbreaks of the virus and had to make the difficult decision to halt in-person classes and remove students from on-campus housing. Similarly, Notre Dame University and the University of Washington reported large surges of case clusters – defined as five or more people in close proximity who test positive for the coronavirus – leading to the suspension of in-person undergraduate classes. In total, more than 85 colleges reported over 1,000 cases throughout the semester, and more than 680 colleges reported at least 100 cases.

Many IHEs had to quickly manage students’ off-campus COVID-19 violations, which linked coronavirus clusters to fraternities, sororities, and large off-campus parties. Last fall, the New York Times identified at least 251 cases of the coronavirus linked to university Greek life. At the University of Washington’s Seattle campus, more than half of the cases identified by the school were associated with its Greek Row.

Beyond the impacts on the student population, widespread outbreaks within higher education communities disproportionately impact university staff such as custodians, cafeteria workers, security guards, and residence-life staff members. Staff members have often been expected to continue their work as usual and support IHEs in navigating abrupt schooling transitions. Research shows that these front-line workers are disproportionately people of color, further exacerbating the racial inequities heightened by the coronavirus pandemic.

Looking ahead to the upcoming spring semester, while COVID-19 cases continue to surge in several parts of the country, many colleges and universities plan on reconvening at least part of the study body on and around campus. The University of California, San Diego, plans to accommodate 11,000 students in campus housing, Princeton University has offered space for thousands of undergraduates, and the University of Florida plans to offer more in-person courses. This creates important questions regarding how colleges plan to implement health and safety programs that provide students and staff with an effective testing, tracing, and supported isolation (TTSI) program to mitigate the chance of widespread community infection of COVID-19.

Lessons Learned

When analyzing effective COVID-19 programs, Duke University stands as an example of an IHE who was largely successfully in minimizing the spread of the coronavirus within its student body. Prior to arriving on campus, Duke students were asked to self-quarantine for 14 days and required to sign a code of conduct pledge that included mask requirements and social distancing guidelines. As in-person classes began, students took part in regular surveillance testing which used a pool-sample technique to rapidly and effectively test more samples. These implemented strategies allowed Duke University to have the lowest average per-capita infection rate in the surrounding community, and avoided large outbreaks seen at neighboring universities.

Other measures planned by IHEs to mitigate the risk of exposure and spread of the coronavirus within their community, include:

Limiting the on-campus population: University of Michigan – Ann Arbor aims to limit the spread of the coronavirus by decreasing population density on campus. The university’s comprehensive winter term plan includes policies that accommodate students who need to be on campus but encourages students who can comfortably learn from home to do so.

Cancellation of Breaks: Various IHEs have already adjusted their traditional academic calendar due to concerns that travel could lead to the spread of the coronavirus when students return from long breaks. In the fall, many IHEs ended the semester before Thanksgiving in an attempt to avoid promoting on-campus spread. Similarly, universities have plans to avoid a traditional spring break, and instead offering a few days off throughout the semester.

Mandatory Face Masks: Most local and state mask mandates have remained in place throughout the country, and even more IHEs have implemented these rules. Despite the lack of a statewide mask mandate in Nebraska, the University of Nebraska- Lincoln requires all those on campus to use face coverings while indoors.

Re-entrance Testing: Research has found that screening college students – even with low-quality tests – is a necessary regimen that helps prevent widespread coronavirus infections within the student body. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill now requires all students, faculty, and staff to receive COVID-19 testing before returning to campus and will implement varying weekly testing requirements for students living in the Chapel Hill area.

Delaying Spring Semester: As the United States faces its the largest spikes in COVID-19 cases thus far, many IHEs are grappling with how to provide students a safe start to their spring semester. Syracuse University, Mississippi State, and many other universities have decided to delay the start of the spring semester or go into full-remote instruction for the first few weeks.

Policy Considerations

With these best practices in mind, university stakeholders and policymakers should consider the following when developing policies to reopen classes and resume in-person instruction. Institutions should also thoroughly evaluate federal and individual state guidelines when considering how to provide students a safe learning environment.

Provide Financial Support to Offset Pandemic Related Costs: As the pandemic forces many universities to close dormitories, dining halls, and reassess profitable events such as sports games, IHEs are left to grapple with their weakening financial situation. On top of the financial crisis many universities are experiencing, IHEs must also find funding for new testing facilities for the safety of both students and staff. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, pandemic related losses have cost upward of $100 million. Further, the university spent an estimated $1.65 million on PPE for students and employees. As IHEs prepare for the upcoming spring semester, policymakers should consider providing financial support to offset the costs of implementing campus-wide testing and distancing policies and fulfill the growing financial needs of IHEs during the coronavirus pandemic.

Implement Consistent Testing and Tracing Systems: Research continues to emphasize the importance of testing when returning students to campus. Researchers at Harvard and Yale Universities have found evidence that suggests IHEs should implement frequent testing of asymptomatic students to prevent more campus outbreaks. The College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College found that only a quarter of IHEs conducted regular screening testing of students in the fall, and only six percent routinely tested students. A large majority of IHEs provided no clear testing plan for students. However, Duke University conducted 68,913 coronavirus tests on 10,265 students. Through required weekly testing, the university found 85 positive tests, roughly half of which were asymptomatic. Frequent surveillance testing programs combined with risk-reduction measures are praised for having contributed to a prolonged period of low transmission on campus.

Advocate for Increased Transparency: Aside from testing, IHEs must also evaluate their communication regarding testing and coronavirus cases. Students have reported diminished trust with IHE leadership during the pandemic. Since there is no national standard for how IHEs report COVID-19 information on their campuses, institutions have independently decided how and what to share publicly amongst students and the public. Irregular communication standards have created largely inconsistent information across states, localities, and the nation, undermining transparency and efforts to address the pandemic. Cary Gross, Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at Yale University and co-founder of WeRateCovidDashboards asks stakeholders to consider partnering with health departments and legislators to advocate increased transparency of COVID-related information on IHE campuses.


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