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The pandemic is still raging. Colleges are reopening in-person. What comes next?

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 1/25/2021 Chris Quintana, USA TODAY
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The University of Illinois had spent months preparing to reopen its campus to students, and a few weeks into the fall semester it seemed all for naught. 

Cases were exploding. A new testing method that relied on spit rather than invasive nasal swabs allowed for thousands of tests and showed many students had the virus that causes COVID-19.

Chancellor Robert J. Jones locked down the campus, and students expecting in-person learning were confined to dorm rooms for online classes they could have taken from home.

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But the story didn't end there. 

A million tests later, the university generally had a positivity rate of less than half a percent at the end of the semester. 

“The key takeaway from last semester is that we showed it can work,” said Martin Burke, the official who leads the university's coronavirus response. “We’re really hopeful that our example can inspire and enable others to achieve really important activities while we all struggle through this really tough pandemic.”

While not every college has Illinois’ resources, campus leaders hoped the lessons from the fall would better position them for the spring semester. That was before a post-holiday winter surge pushed the number of COVID-19 deaths in America over 400,000. Before more contagious variants of the coronavirus emerged. Before the vaccine rollout proved slower than anticipated.

Now, returning student populations may be at even greater risk than they were in the fall – not to mention their surrounding communities, where research has suggested greater outbreaks in college towns.

Despite those concerns, colleges are pushing ahead. The stakes are high; enrollment plummeted at most colleges last semester, and the loss of income from in-person services like campus housing and dining could be devastating to schools that depend on that money. College towns would feel the economic pinch as well.

But when administrators talk about the need for reopening, they focus on what went well in the fall – and the advantages of the full university experience.

As Illinois' Burke put it, “We can’t lose a generation of young people because of the pandemic.”

Do colleges spread coronavirus? 

Some public health experts fear the new semester's timing could exacerbate the state of the pandemic. 

“Reopening universities, bringing all students back to town at this perilous phase in the U.S. pandemic is extremely risky indeed,” said Gavin Yamey, a professor of global health at Duke University. “Rates of community transmission are much higher across the country than they were at the start of last fall.”

The risk of spread is especially high at the start of the semester. That’s because many students will be coming from communities where the transmission rate is higher. And most students are unlikely to have access to the type of rigorous testing found on some college campuses. 

Emerging research, both from academics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found evidence that counties where universities reopened in the fall for in-person learning saw higher case counts than those counties without colleges. A USA TODAY analysis found that of the 25 hottest outbreaks in the U.S. at the time, communities heavy with college students represented 19.

'Astonishingly risky': COVID-19 cases at colleges are fueling the nation's hottest outbreaks

Even communities that didn’t bring students back for in-person classes, like Washington State University, still saw outbreaks as students returned to these communities en masse regardless of instruction given by college leaders.

Still other colleges, particularly smaller campuses, reported few if any cases throughout their semesters.

Yamey and colleague Nahid Bhadelia, a professor at Boston University and director of the Special Pathogens Unit at Boston Medical Center, warned that colleges should prepare to be dealing with the impacts of the virus through 2021.

In a recent story for Time magazine, they recommended colleges employ measures such as frequent testing of all students; plenty of isolation and quarantine rooms for those infected or exposed to the virus; and social distancing on campus and the classroom.

Test, test and test again 

Many higher education leaders say they've already taken some of those lessons to heart.

For example, Wingate University, a private liberal arts college in North Carolina, is trying to double the number of tests they did in the fall. They'll test all students who return to campus, while also limiting social gatherings. They hope to loosen restrictions if conditions allow – though that could go the opposite way, too. 

“There is no simple answer,” said school President Rhett Brown. “As conditions change, if we see a spike in positive tests, we will adjust.”

The University of Missouri had focused in the fall on testing students with COVID-19 symptoms and people who had been in close contact with them. For the spring, they planned to test roughly 6,300 undergraduates before the start of the semester, using money from the federal government to fund the program.

Other schools are scaling back on testing. Auburn University in Alabama had entry testing last semester but doesn't plan to test everyone at the beginning of this semester. Instead, it will select students, staff and faculty randomly and ask them to test. 

The disparity in university responses can be vexing for parents and students trying to figure out when, and to some extent if, their colleges will resume in-person classes.

Whereas universities initially responded to the virus the same way in spring 2020 – in-person instruction was paused and colleges sent students home – their plans now vary widely. 

Adding to the confusion, earlier guidance from the CDC suggested mass testing hadn’t yet been shown to be effective in reducing outbreaks. That agency now says “entry screening combined with regular serial testing” along with other prevention measures could prevent or reduce spread. 

a group of people standing in a park: Students wearing masks walk on campus of the University of Notre Dame on Aug. 18, 2020, in South Bend, Ind. The University of Notre Dame on Aug. 18 canceled in-person undergraduate classes for two weeks after a spike of coronavirus cases that occurred since the semester began. © Robert Franklin, South Bend Tribune via AP Students wearing masks walk on campus of the University of Notre Dame on Aug. 18, 2020, in South Bend, Ind. The University of Notre Dame on Aug. 18 canceled in-person undergraduate classes for two weeks after a spike of coronavirus cases that occurred since the semester began.

Regardless of protocols, college leaders and health experts said testing has to be paired with preventive measures like social distancing and contact tracing teams that quickly isolate students who test positive. And schools have to account for spread in places where they don’t have control. 

Illinois and other universities found little evidence of transmission among students in  classrooms. Rather, outbreaks were more likely to occur in the off-campus spaces where students are least likely to wear masks or practice social distancing. 

To that end, some institutions have banned audiences from sporting events or canceled tailgating. They have also expelled or otherwise punished students who broke rules around quarantine requirements or throwing parties. Still, there’s only so much they can do.

For example, after the University of Alabama won the NCAA football championship this month, fans in Tuscaloosa poured into the streets. Health officials are already saying they expect to see more cases in the area because of the event, according to The Associated Press.

Colleges plan to reopen 

For the most part, colleges' approach to the spring will be similar to their fall approach, said Chris Marsicano, a professor at North Carolina's Davidson College who runs the College Crisis Initiative, which has been tracking universities’ responses to the coronavirus. 

Marsicano said some institutions have delayed the start of in-person classes. That has been the case at Syracuse University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. That institution sent students home in the fall after it reopened for in-person instruction and experienced several outbreaks.

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And some universities that had offered classes largely online last semester are attempting to bring students back this time around, Marsicano said.

Some may feel they can't afford not to. Enrollment at most colleges and universities plummeted in the last semester, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. More troubling, some indicators of future enrollment such as the number of students who complete applications for federal student aid were down as well. 

That could spell even more financial trouble for colleges, especially those that rely on tuition to stay afloat. For some students, delaying the start of their education could mean never getting a degree.

Colleges and COVID-19: One college is keeping cases down while others are exploding with new cases

Some relief may be in sight. 

The federal government recently released nearly $21 billion in stimulus money geared toward colleges. And President Joe Biden’s stimulus proposal would give $35 billion more to public colleges and historically black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions, if Congress approves. Those figures are still well below the $120 billion the higher education trade group, the American Council on Education, had said would be necessary to meet the needs of students and colleges.

So universities will do what they can – both to stay open and stay true to their mission to educate a new generation – while pinning their hopes that the lessons of the fall will help keep their students and staff safe, both on campus and off.

After a successful fall semester with about 1,100 students on campus, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst plans on bringing back 5,500 students for the spring and testing students twice a week, said Jeff Hescock, the university’s director of emergency management.

UMass Amherst has also been providing coronavirus testing to nonstudents in the community. And the university started administering coronavirus vaccines to front-line responders in addition to its health staff. The strategy recognizes the college's inherent links with the community by seeking to prevent outbreaks both on and off campus, Hescock said. 

“If it’s out there, we’re catching it,” Hescock said. “And then we’re preventing further spread. And I think that’s something the town and us have worked extremely well on together.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The pandemic is still raging. Colleges are reopening in-person. What comes next?

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