These Colleges Are Winning the Fight Against Covid-19 — at Least for Now | #students | #parents

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign began the fall semester as a shining example of higher education’s can-do spirit: It reopened its doors for in-person instruction with an ambitious plan to test more than 40,000 students, twice a week.

It was an enormous effort, made possible by a quick, inexpensive saliva test that the university’s own scientists invented. The system worked well — until a few students kept partying even after testing positive.

As a result, infections spiked at the end of August. The New York Times highlighted Illinois as an example of how “even the most comprehensive approaches to limiting the virus’s spread can break down.”

We see the whole iceberg. Everybody else sees the tip.

But the news in Illinois, and across the country, is not entirely hopeless. There are institutions that — through a combination of good planning and good fortune — have managed to control their Covid case numbers, holding positivity rates below 1 percent.

Illinois’s experience, in fact, may be evidence for cautious optimism.

Administrators at the university responded to the surge in cases by imposing a mandatory two-week lockdown for undergraduates. Students equated it to being “grounded,” but the emergency measure brought case numbers back down, and the situation appears to have stabilized.

On Tuesday, Illinois tested more than 11,000 people, with about 60 positive results, representing roughly one-half of 1 percent. The university’s comprehensive testing apparatus has been identifying problems quickly, before they spiral out of control.

“We see the whole iceberg,” said Nigel Goldenfeld, a physics professor at Illinois who is one of the main architects of the university’s reopening. “Everybody else sees the tip of the iceberg.”

Walk-up testing locations can be found all around Illinois’s campus.

The reopening of American higher education has been disastrous for universities that blundered into the fall with fantastical schemes and unrealistic expectations of students — a tale of one institution after another slamming into a Covid-shaped iceberg.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill abandoned in-person instruction after only one week of classes. Other big institutions, such as the University of Georgia, have remained open despite thousands of reported cases — and a troubling surge of infections in the surrounding community.

In both Georgia and North Carolina, state leaders pressured universities to reopen in person, no matter what.

But amid the sea of negative headlines, there are colleges that have managed to effectively navigate the troubled waters. Northeastern University has conducted more than 147,000 Covid tests, with only 75 returning a positive result. At Fort Lewis College, a public liberal-arts campus in rural Colorado, nearly 3,200 Covid tests have returned just 18 positive results.

Tom Stritikus, president of Fort Lewis, said the college financed its testing program by partnering with a Denver nonprofit, Gary Community Investments. The nonprofit provided test kits at a deep discount, he said.

But Stritikus isn’t ready to declare victory, despite the encouraging numbers so far.

“We are not cocky about this at all,” he said. “The stakes are high.”

What’s the Secret?

At the campuses where Covid is relatively under control, common themes emerge: a commitment to testing asymptomatic students, an effective “we’re in this together” pitch to the campus, and a location where viral spread in the surrounding cities and counties is low.

“Massive testing, massive testing,” is how Cornell University’s president, Martha E. Pollack, explained her institution’s low Covid rates. “Followed up with very careful contract tracing and then supported isolation and quarantine.” Cornell’s most recent weekly positivity rate is 0.02 percent.

“The testing program is at the heart of everything,” Pollack said.

Northeastern University’s Michael Armini struck a similar tone: “Testing only symptomatic people doesn’t cut it,” he said.

Armini, a senior vice president who also co-chaired Northeastern’s closing/reopening task force, said that students are tested every three days, and faculty/staff are tested twice per week.

Northeastern took other steps as well. To reduce density in its dorms, the university secured 2,000 hotel rooms across the city of Boston, and turned them into temporary student housing. The university, which has a Husky dog mascot, launched a “Protect the Pack” public-health campaign to emphasize the importance of mask-wearing and social distancing.

Armini said that testing stands out as the “centerpiece” of the university’s strategy, but location matters too.

“We’ve done some things right here on campus, but we are also in New England, which is doing quite well,” Armini said.

In Ohio, Oberlin College switched to a three-semester, year-round schedule to reduce the number of students on campus. The college is testing 25 percent of the campus every week, and it has emphasized mask-wearing, including a requirement that masks be worn outside as well.

“It creates a visual cue for the entire campus that we’re in something collective together,” said Oberlin’s president, Carmen Twillie Ambar. “If you walk around this campus without a mask on, you will look like a visitor.”

Oberlin has conducted nearly 5,000 Covid tests, with only 11 positive results.

You could imagine doing this in workplaces, or small towns, or maybe if you’re really clever about it, doing it on a much larger scale, in cities.

Carl T. Bergstrom, a professor of biology at the University of Washington and an infectious-disease expert, said he is encouraged by the different types of colleges that are effectively managing the virus. If a large campus like Illinois can use widespread testing to keep the virus in check, he said, that same strategy could prove useful for other colleges — and American society as a whole.

“You could imagine doing this in workplaces, or small towns, or maybe if you’re really clever about it, doing it on a much larger scale, in cities,” Bergstrom said.

But Daniel Simons, a psychology professor at Illinois, cautions that the university’s Covid case numbers have already far exceeded the rosy projections that were used to justify reopening in person. The university projected 500 total infections for the semester, Simons said, but has instead surpassed 1,800 infections since classes began.

While the testing program is impressive, he said, the virus is still spreading.

“The question, I guess, is how do you define success?” Simons said. “My guess is that those numbers are much lower than at many other places, but the other places just don’t know how bad they are.”

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