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For campuses to open, students need to play it safe

A team of researchers from Baruch College in New York City, Grinnell College in Iowa, Bard College in nearby Red Hook, N.Y., and Cornell University in upstate New York released a study this week suggesting that diligent student behavior may be just as important as strong policy when it comes to safely reopening colleges this fall. 

Their findings, which can be found at https://arxiv.org/abs/2008.09597,come after a tumultuous week of large universities pivoting from on-campus to remote instruction, due to early COVID-19 infection spikes.

Matthew Junge, a math professor at Baruch College and formerly at Bard, is the primary investigator on the study. He said safe reopening hinges not only on strong policies by college administrators, but also responsible compliance from students.

“We saw that outbreaks were controlled when administrators thinned the campus population by at least 50% and screened everyone weekly for infection, while, alongside this, students socialized a lot less and wore face masks when socializing,” said Junge.  The professor added that the model further suggests that a “combined effort that is any less serious and unified makes it difficult to contain the spread of COVID-19.”

The team, which built a model that simulates student and faculty movements on a campus of about 2,000 students, found that without interventions, most people on campus would be infected within a few months. 

“The widespread use of face masks alone reduces the number of cases dramatically and so does frequent testing,” said Felicia Keesing, a biology professor at Bard College.

Nicole Eikmeier, a computer scientist from Grinnell College, said that working with students from Cornell, Bard and Baruch was one of the best parts of the project. “They were involved at every step and offered critical insights into both the model and student behavior.” 

The team, which was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, released the study this week as a pre-print, which has not been peer-reviewed, because of the time-sensitive nature of the findings. “We wanted to make sure that the people who most need this information — college administrators and students — have it as quickly as possible,” said Junge.

The Baruch professor noted that the semester will be over by the time the researchers’ paper is peer-reviewed. “Rarely in academia is disseminating research this rapidly so essential. That is why we are circulating our findings early.” 

The team’s model incorporated realistic student schedules and movements across campus. “We found that closing buildings can cause unanticipated consequences. If students spend their time socializing when the library or the dining hall is closed, we actually see a big increase in infections,” said Eikmeier.

Junge agreed that closing buildings such as gyms, libraries and dining halls might make things worse. 

“When students socialize with that extra unstructured time, we saw big infection spikes in our model. It may be better to keep these spaces open, because administrators can control how they are used.” 

Junge noted that one part of his team’s study that sets it apart from others about COVID-19 on colleges is that they focused on student behavior. 

“One perhaps less surprising finding is that how students act matters a lot. A more surprising example of this is that socializing in small groups is one of the riskier settings, and we saw that when students wear masks there, it pulls infection rates down all over campus.”

Another key to safe reopening of campuses, according to the researchers’ findings, is that everyone needs to be tested weekly. Junge said that short of students passing most of their time in their rooms, and being in general very responsible, “We advise that a small college thin out their campus population and test them weekly. Anything short of this, and a COVID-19 outbreak appears difficult to contain.”

The lead researcher said he believes that students, like everyone, would appreciate clear, evidence-based guidelines for what is safe to do during these times. “We hope that colleges utilize our work to offer concrete guidelines: wear a mask with friends, socialize less and safely, and show up for tests.

“Students returning to these unusual campuses with extreme measures in place need to realize that their behavior is one of these measures. How they conduct themselves will determine if they get to enjoy, albeit a bit differently, the benefits of college life, or pass another year learning from a screen in their bedroom.”

Models always have limitations, noted Keesing. “But this model should provide colleges and students with some useful insights that could make a big difference this fall.”


Editor’s note: In May, The Lakeville Journal reported that the National Science Foundation had awarded professors at Bard College in Red Hook, N.Y., and Grinnell College in Iowa a $60,000 grant through its Rapid Response Research program to develop network models that, by more accurately incorporating social distancing measures, better capture the geographic and social complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic. This article focuses on the result of the researchers’ modeling study for the safe reopening of small colleges.

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