To gain a sense of how strange the start of the fall 2020 semester has been at Virginia Commonwealth University, look no further than a recent pinned tweet on the main @VCU Twitter feed. “Check this thread for indoor + outdoor locations for studying and eating,” the tweet said, along with emojis of books, a computer, a sandwich and a box of french fries.
In an attempt to create safe spaces for meals and work sessions amid COVID-19, the university installed three tents with 100-plus seats for students, faculty and staff. Five classrooms in Hibbs Hall also were set aside during daytime hours. According to a tweet from VCU Student Affairs, wipes were made available: “Individuals should clean up after themselves, disinfect shared surfaces before and after use, and not move the furniture that has been positioned to maintain physical distancing.”
Virginia’s colleges and universities pride themselves on “evidence-based” decisions. Departments including nursing, psychology, social work and medicine all employ the term, which relies on empirical data, observations and experiences, not theories or logic. We hope that schools across the commonwealth follow this critical principle to make good COVID-19 choices in the critical weeks ahead.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considerations for reopening “institutions of higher education” demonstrate the challenge of mitigating the spread of COVID-19 on campus. The lowest-risk scenario for learning is clear: “Faculty and students engage in virtual-only learning options, activities, and events,” the CDC said. For residential living: “Residence halls are closed, where feasible.”
Facing financial hurdles, several colleges across the country — including VCU — are closer to what the CDC refers to as “more risk.” For learning: “Small in-person classes, activities, and events. Individuals remain spaced at least 6 feet apart and do not share objects (e.g., hybrid virtual and in-person class structures or staggered/rotated scheduling to accommodate smaller class sizes).” For residential living: “Residence halls are open at lower capacity and shared spaces are closed (e.g., kitchens, common areas).”
It’s notable that the CDC chose the word “more” over “moderate,” “medium,” or “lesser.” Depending on the campus’ location, size and structure — and the behavior of the people involved — the risk for community transmission could be more or less.
Here’s the empirical evidence: Campuses across the United States quickly have become hubs for transmission of the coronavirus. A recent New York Times survey of more than 1,500 U.S. colleges and universities found at least 26,000 recorded cases and 64 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
As of Friday morning, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill COVID-19 dashboard listed 945 cases since February. More than half of those cases (505) came during the week of Aug. 17-23, with a positivity rate of 32%. The presence of a few clusters during the first week of classes — beginning Aug. 10 and defined as five or more cases in close proximity — prompted the university to cancel in-person instruction for undergraduates and shift to virtual learning.
“We know that these trends aren’t just affecting our campus: they have escalated the concerns of our neighbors, co-workers and friends in and around the Chapel Hill and Carrboro communities,” said UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Robert Blouin in a recent statement. “The health and well-being of the good people of our greater Carolina community are just as important to us as that of our students, faculty and staff.”
While most of those affected might be asymptomatic, or battle moderate symptoms and fully recover, the disruption cannot be dismissed. The use of masks, the practicing of social distancing and/or the hand-washing had to be missing somewhere along the line. And the fact that colleges are having to institute their own COVID-19 data dashboards reinforces their role as little cities — with the potential to overwhelm local medical systems.
In reviewing VCU’s COVID-19 dashboard, we see early hints of the same statistics that sparked the fallout UNC had to grapple with. As of Friday morning, VCU listed 4,412 residential students this semester. After two weeks of classes, there were 108 active student cases, with 69 residential students in isolation (those who have tested positive) and 100 in quarantine (those who might have been exposed).
What will the numbers look like by Tuesday, Sept. 8 — the day that the University of Virginia planned to resume some in-person classes? What choices will people make over Labor Day weekend — the unofficial end of summer? Where will campus life be two weeks after that? What empirical observations did we gather and learn from during the Memorial Day and Fourth of July holidays?
Colleges and universities pride themselves on delivering a world-class education, with research and health care systems firmly rooted in evidence-based decisions. No exceptions should be made for COVID-19.
— Chris Gentilviso