- - Wednesday, September 9, 2020

A normal return to college this fall is anything but normal. The variety of COVID-19 impacted education plans range from fully online to fully in-person, and everything in between. Many colleges have cancelled or delayed football and other sports this fall. Colleges have welcomed students back to campus, and students are glad to be back; some have reciprocated with new infections, mostly asymptomatic. College life has been upended, with no end in sight.

As the number of new COVID-19 infections spike, several college administrators have sent students home and moved classes online. Some have called for a two-week campus shut down, hoping that the infection surge will quiet down. Clearly, an air of panic has set and college administrators are struggling.

It does not need to be this way.

To mitigate widespread anxiety among students and campus leaders alike, there are five steps that can be taken today that will allow campuses to remain open and protect the most vulnerable in the university and local community.

First, conduct widespread testing. If a campus wants to avoid knowing about cases, simply stop testing. However, that does not mean infections are not present. Widespread testing, particularly surveillance testing, is critical to know who is infected and who is not; it also means more cases will be detected. Widespread testing empowers everyone with knowledge of their infection status, so they can take the appropriate actions to protect others. Most will self-isolate. Some will simply wear a face covering. A small number will ignore their positive test result and go about their affairs. That is why 80% or more adherence to face coverings and physical distancing is critical to suppress infection transmission.

Second, punishing students for behaviour that spawns infections is counterproductive. New campus requirements for face coverings and physical distancing are a challenge for everyone. Expecting 18-24 year olds to maintain such protocols, all of the time, is naive. Getting 80% adherence would be a major accomplishment, with the higher the rate the better.

Accept that some students will never buy in and adapt. Such students will gather in groups, attend parties and do what students typically do. Just one infected person at a party can spawn several new infections. Over time, all these non-adherent students will get infected. The key is to encourage the highest possible adherence rates without the heavy hand of punishment and threats.

Third, to maintain high student adherence rates, work with the leadership of every student association and group on campus. Their buy-in to the campus’ COVID-19 plan is essential to keep campus infection rates as low as possible. Students counselling non-adherent students is more effective than punishments issued by campus administrators. By developing and maintaining such student partnerships, infection transmission can be suppressed.

Fourth, once infections surge on campus, students cannot be sent home. By sending students away, colleges are sending infections into distant cities and towns. Even while in transit, infected students may inadvertently infect people along the way. Bringing students back to campus means that they are with the campus for the semester, infections or not.

Fifth, with infected students living in a college community, at-risk people are most vulnerable. Many non-adherent students will live off campus. Work with local officials to communicate to all residents of a community the risks and encourage people to take more responsibility for their well-being. 

This may mean shopping for groceries at 7 a.m., avoiding eating indoors at restaurants or not taking public transportation at prime times when students may also use such modes of transit. These risks must be clearly communicated to all residents of the community, so everyone can take the necessary steps to protect themselves.

Bringing tens of thousands back to campus guarantees infections. The issue is how to manage the risk. With high adherence rates, the number of new student infections is limited. Community members can take appropriate steps to minimize their own risks.

Planning, not panic, is vital to keeping campuses open this fall. The key is to control what can be controlled and to minimize the risk of what cannot be controlled. With such an approach, campuses can remain open this fall, even with all the infections they are experiencing.

• Sheldon H. Jacobson is a founder professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Janet A. Jokela, MD, is the acting regional dean of the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Urbana-Champaign. 

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