Universities such as Duke and Purdue are breathing a collective sigh of relief after a semester of in-person instruction that largely avoided the coronavirus outbreaks that some experts had predicted.
Their secret? Testing.
“Since the beginning of the semester, testing was mandatory for everyone who was present on campus,” said Anton Ivanov, an assistant professor of business administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who served on the COVID-19 response team for the Gies College of Business.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is one of a few schools that held in-person classes this fall now being singled out for some praise after largely mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
At Illinois, students and staff entered buildings by showing an innovative phone app documenting a recent negative test. The school’s positivity rate spiked to 3% in late August but stayed well below 1% the remainder of the fall while classes were split between in-person and online.
“As an instructor, if I wanted to get into my classroom, I’d need to show the code, which shows a negative test result,” Mr. Ivanov said.
Testing wasn’t the only answer. Social distancing, mask-wearing and mix of hybrid teaching styles helped keep the virus largely at bay.
At the semester’s end, public health and education experts are pointing to other success stories at various colleges, from small liberal arts institutions such as Bowdoin College to larger institutions such as Purdue University, and historically Black colleges and universities, such as Winston-Salem State University, where students learned on campus and the coronavirus was relatively contained.
“We generally think that places like Cal State [which shifted fully online] did the best job,” said Chris Marsicano, director of the College Crisis COVID-19 research group at Davidson College and faculty in the educational studies department.
But among those schools that chose in-person instruction, Mr. Marsicano said the schools that sought to “test everybody, all the time” generally did better at controlling the virus.
By December, confirmed positive coronavirus cases among schools with aggressive testing regimes, such as the University of Vermont (110 cases) and Duke University (267 cases), showed far better results than schools such as the University of Georgia, where nearly 5,000 cases were confirmed.
“If we had 1 out of 6 Americans get the coronavirus, we would’ve shut the whole country down,” Mr. Marsicano said, referring to the University of Georgia’s infection rate.
Overall, various reports estimate hundreds of thousands of confirmed cases of COVID-19 among college students and employees. Dozens of deaths are linked to COVID-19 infections in colleges, including at least four student deaths this fall.
But colleges that required weekly, if not bi-weekly, testing or developed strong measures for student buy-in with social distancing rules, largely succeeded in showing markedly lower transmission rates of the virus.
Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, with roughly 2,000 undergraduate students, reported five cases as of early December. It tested students multiple times a week throughout the year.
Officials at Winston-Salem State University, a school with more than 5,000 students, have reported more than 130 cases of the coronavirus — a low rate that experts attribute to a community outreach project to build compliance with mask use.
And at Purdue University, with a population of more than 40,000 students, officials reported roughly 3,000 COVID-19 cases. In a Thanksgiving message, President Mitch Daniels said students “refuted the cynical predictions” about the health effects of in-person instruction.
Fewer than 800 — or less than a third — of the 3,000 colleges across America tracked by researchers at College Crisis went primarily or fully in-person this fall. Roughly a quarter of schools conducted rigorous virus testing or surveillance of students, with far fewer testing all of their students.
One of the most effective schools at implementing COVID-19 protocols has been Duke University.
In November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote that Duke, where officials implemented “pooled surveillance testing,” or testing batches of specimens at a time to spot confirmations, adopted a “critical strategy” for tamping down the virus.
Duke University, which held in-person classes, tested its 6,000-plus undergraduates twice weekly, and reported a positivity rate well below 1% in the final full-week before Thanksgiving.