Students across the country are heading back or have already arrived to their campuses for the spring semester. If history is any guide, that movement could result in a spike in coronavirus cases in the surrounding communities. 

In the late summer and early fall, counties with large universities that held in-person instruction saw the incidence of COVID-19 increase 56.2% in the days surrounding the start of classes (from 15.3 to 23.9 cases per 100,000), according to research released by the Centers for Disease Control this month.

But in counties that are home to large universities where instruction resumed remotely, the instances of positive COVID cases dropped 17.9% on average during the period surrounding the start of classes. 

“Colleges and universities don’t exist in isolation, they’re part of their communities so what happens in colleges can have an impact on the community outside the campus gates,” said Lisa Barrios, one of the authors of the paper and the leader of the agency’s School Fieldwork Unit for COVID-19 Response. 

The CDC analysis focuses on the role universities that enroll more than 20,000 students have on incidences of COVID-19 in their surrounding area. To come up with the findings, researchers divided the institutions as best they could into those doing in-person instruction and those offering remote-only classes, zeroed in on the 21 days before and the 21 days after classes started at these schools, and determined whether positive coronavirus cases in their home counties increased during this period. 

In addition, the researchers compared their findings in counties with a large university doing in-person instruction with counties that are otherwise regionally and demographically similar, except that they aren’t home to a large university. By matching the counties and comparing the difference in incidences of COVID-19 cases between them, researchers were better able to quantify the impact of in-person instruction on positivity rates. 

The findings add to evidence and concern that colleges’ approach to last semester contributed to the spread of coronavirus. Students, parents and the nation watched last fall as colleges across the country brought students back to campus only to have to send them home or isolate students amid outbreaks. 

A paper published in September, which used cell phone data to track mobility in the weeks leading up to and following campus reopenings, found that in-person instruction was associated with 3,000 new cases of COVID-19 per day in the U.S. It’s possible that the number of positive COVID cases that result from in-person instruction this semester could be even larger, said Martin Andersen, an assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and one of the authors of the paper. 

“We’re sitting on a powder keg right now, between these new, more contagious variants of COVID-19 that are circulating, everyone having gone home for the winter break and having come back,” he said. “We’re already in a bad situation and this has a risk of making it extremely bad.”  

The rise in COVID cases over the past few months has pushed many colleges to make adjustments to their spring semesters. Some have pushed back their start date, while others are beginning instruction online for the first few weeks and then transitioning to in-person classes. 

“Colleges and universities for the spring semester should be looking at ways that they can increase implementation of mitigation strategies,” Barrios said. “I think at this point we all know what those mitigation strategies are.” 

They include widespread masking, frequent testing and tracking, social distancing and limiting large in-person gatherings. Colleges’ record at implementing these measures in the fall was mixed and even at those schools with robust testing and other protocols, officials still struggled to prevent outbreaks, given the social nature of college life.

The findings from the CDC study and his own research indicate that schools should not only be considering changes to their testing and other prevention strategies, but also at their education strategies, Andersen said. A “pretty reasonable response” to the data on the role of in-person instruction in COVID-19 spread would be to shift to remote instruction, he added. 

“It’s clear now from both the CDC study and from our own study that colleges have a role to play here in limiting transmission,” Andersen said. “They need to think through the steps that they can take to mitigate the harms that they’re causing to their communities.”  

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