Controlling the spread of COVID-19 is the primary goal for health officials across the country, and they are especially concerned with the potential for more spreading as college students are returning to campuses. With clusters of people in their late teens and 20s accounting for major increases in cases in heavily populated states, school administrators are also concerned and most are taking crucial steps to creating a safe and healthy return to school for students.
The reality for young people is that while they run the risk, just like everyone else, of contracting COVID, the possibility of being hospitalized for it is low. The Centers for Disease Control indicate that only 4% of people in their 20s who have COVID will need to enter a hospital. For those in their 20s and 30s, the fatality rate is currently about 0.1%. This is good news, but we still haven’t seen the result of thousands of students living together, being in classrooms, going to parties, and partaking in seemingly normal college behavior. There is no leaving that to chance.
Most schools have already put measures in place to create a safe environment at school, but it will take effective coordination across each university’s community to protect students and contain the spread of cases.
The colleges and universities that navigate this most successfully will be those who stick to a disciplined plan but are agile enough to make changes as new information becomes available. A plan has to be specific in the actions that different departments will take, and there must be orchestration among teams, workflows, and processes to ensure consistency and a common focus on outcomes. Let’s take a closer look at the actions that are most critical to making this work.
Implement regular COVID testing
University student health services will be a critical player in the plans to create a safe school campus environment. Schools are already planning to utilize student health services to, a) identify students who have the virus and provide treatment for them; and b) to reduce the spread of COVID by quarantining test-positive students. These preventative measures will likely be the single most effective way of containment, according to health officials.
Students from different parts of the country are essentially bringing all different types of exposure levels into the same environment when they set foot on campus, and this creates an entirely new potential breeding ground for the virus. Testing students before school starts, at regular intervals, and perhaps any time a student travels outside of the local area need to be operationalized and put into action.
In order to provide this kind of testing and make use of the resulting data, colleges will need to do the following:
- Create a regular, mandatory cadence for testing in conjunction with student health services officials. Testing intervals should be coordinated with local health officials and need to comply with state and regional regulations.
- Communicate to students through all available means (mobile app, email, social media, and on-site signage) that testing is mandatory, explain the process for getting tests and results, and be clear about test logistics. This step may be the most important because getting the attention of a busy student body is challenging, no matter what the content of the message is.
- Employ incentives for compliance, and penalties for lack of compliance. Schools cannot function if students do not abide by the testing program. Lack of participation could create gaps in awareness which could lead to faulty assumptions about the overall state of the coronavirus on campus. By making enrollment for the following semester contingent on compliance, for example, schools can create incentives for adhering to the testing plan. Schools might want to consider initiating a campaign for those who participate, or even gamify it so students are incented to take part.
- Establish defined testing locations in convenient campus locations, or provide testing through mobile delivery. The keys here are to make the testing locations visible, easy to access, and not demanding on students’ time.
With testing results, schools can take the next set of steps to ensure they operate responsibly. These include:
- Providing medical services or even hospitalization for students who test positive.
- Coordination with faculty for students who must miss classes or tests due to treatment.
- Data collection to establish awareness of positive and negative trending cohorts.
- Initiate planning for dramatic measures, including shutting down living facilities or classroom facilities, if needed. The right data will also give schools foresight into planning for the following semester or quarter.
Increase student awareness via peer evangelism
Colleges need students to be aware of risks, treatments, and their responsibilities in order to maintain a safe environment. Communication to students will be most effective when it comes from other students. For this reason, universities should consider creating a corps of student evangelists who are visible, accessible, and effective at modeling the right types of behavior, and acting as effective resources for other students.
Some schools, like Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, are recruiting Public Health Ambassadors to support the University’s new reopening and operating plan. This group will be responsible for enforcing plan policies, and for encouraging members of the campus community to engage in healthy, safe behaviors, which include:
- Hand washing, use of disinfectants, and actions that students need to bake into their ongoing, regular behavior.
- Social distancing and mask-wearing.
- Avoiding large gatherings. This might include advocating new types of social get-togethers that are geared for 12 or fewer people as alternatives to large parties and group recreational activities.
These programs can be effective when students are equipped with the right policies and behaviors to communicate. But it’s the optics of peer-to-peer influence that give these programs validation among students.
Students in these programs need training on written communication and public speaking and should be equipped with the right platforms (social media, college website, on-campus visibility) to help them amplify their messages. This might include a specific brand that connects the goals of the program to the student corp of evangelists. Their program and messages should have regular exposure in regular communication channels that help imprint their brand and message on the minds of the student audience.
Create a “low-touch” campus
Universities have a wide variety of meeting places, all of which need policies for ongoing cleanliness and safety. The more people who enter these spaces increases the risk of coronavirus spread. Keeping these places clean, or shutting some of them down, will require a continuous set of tasks that campus teams must orchestrate across all facilities and programs.
For starters, campus buildings must have clean air filtration systems which may require significant infrastructure improvements, but will also have a major impact on reducing the spread of the virus. Buildings, classrooms, and all physical elements of the school will need to be cleaned on a regular basis. There is also a need for seating arrangements in classrooms, meeting rooms, and other common areas that keep people at a safe distance from one another.
Some schools are establishing best practices for facilities cleanliness for classrooms that include:
- Classroom configurations that are adapted to 30% of normal capacity. Two empty chairs should sit between occupied ones.
- Daily (at the minimum) disinfecting with industrial-strength solutions for all buildings.
- High-touch surfaces (desks, doors, windows, for example) will need to be cleaned at least every hour, if not more.
- All classrooms should have video capabilities so lectures can be recorded and provided through digital channels for students who choose remote learning.
- A daily assessment process and communication channels to cancel on-site classes if a student or professor in that classroom has tested positive for COVID.
- Hand sanitizing stations placed in classrooms, all buildings, and generally distributed across the campus.
Even for schools with a smaller physical footprint, students are accustomed to freedom to most buildings, and that creates more to manage and clean. School administrators and facilities teams should determine which buildings to keep open and which to close. This list could be based on campus needs combined with the complexity of the logistics of maintenance. A hierarchy might include:
- Critical facilities: these include anything related to health services, buildings with small classrooms where classes will be held, safety services (campus security), and some parts of administration (financial aid, academic counseling).
- Small group facilities: some buildings will be used for smaller groups including classes with fewer than 12 students. But schools might also have recreational locations or student unions that allow small groups to meet for exercise, clubs, or studying. Even the campus libraries will have to use a distancing plan to keep students apart from one another, while still providing access to research and study materials.
- Phased activity facilities: one option for things like recreational facilities and administrative services is to segment usage. For example, it may be that students are allowed into certain buildings on certain days, based on alphabetical order, academic major, or some other designator that will allow the overall population to be spread out.
- Temporarily facilities: it will make sense in some cases to provide temporary locations for services. Student COVID testing, for example, might be best delivered if it is done in a conveniently situated, but temporary building, Similarly with some classes, it may make sense to lock down permanent buildings because of the logistics of cleaning them, and instead, use portable or other types of buildings.
- Closed facilities: buildings with large lecture halls and places that draw large numbers of students will need to be closed. These include large recreational facilities, on-campus restaurants, and other services that are designed for congregating.
Many colleges are getting creative in providing some sense of normalcy for students with things like:
- Broader access to WiFi and tented, outdoor study areas to encourage safely distanced common areas for studying and socializing.
- Access to masks, everywhere, and all the time. Both as a way to serve forgetful students who leave masks at home, and to instill the behavior of mask-wearing, clean masks should be available at locations around the campus.
- Dividers made of plexiglass can be installed in libraries and eating locations to give students the ability to be in the same area but to do so at a safe distance.
- Mobile health screening available across campus. Any student, at any time, should be able to quickly and easily be treated if she/he feels ill. This is important for student safety, but also to curb the spread, and to behavioralize students to seek help before their condition worsens.
Parents and students across the country are facing difficult decisions about when, if, or how they are going to return to school. University leaders are working hard to ensure that the environment they create will protect students and the entire campus community.
While mask-wearing and social-distancing are crucial, so are the behaviors that schools mandate and instill in students, and across the university. With the right focus both on immediate health needs and preventative measures, colleges will likely see that they have created a foundation for long-term success and leadership for student health and safety.