Students from across the country are either returning or have already arrived on their campuses for the spring semester. If history is any guide, that move could result in an increase in coronavirus cases in surrounding communities. In late summer and early fall, counties with large universities providing in-person instruction saw the incidence of COVID-19 rise 56.2% in the days surrounding the start of classes (from 15.3 to 23 , 9 cases per 100,000), according to published research. by the Centers for Disease Control this month.
But in counties that are home to large universities where instruction was remotely resumed, COVID-positive cases fell 17.9% on average during the period surrounding the start of classes. “Colleges and universities do not exist in isolation, they are part of their communities, so what happens in schools can have an impact on the community outside the campus gates,” said Lisa Barrios, one of the authors of the article and leader of the School Field Work Unit of the agency for the COVID-19 Response. The CDC’s analysis focuses on the role of universities that enroll more than 20,000 students in COVID-19 incidents in their surroundings. To arrive at their findings, the researchers divided the institutions as best they could into those that provided in-person instruction and those that offered remote classes, focusing on the 21 days before and 21 days after classes began at these schools, and determined whether positive cases of coronavirus in their home counties increased during this period. Additionally, the researchers compared their findings in counties with a large university that provides in-person instruction with counties that are otherwise regionally and demographically similar, except that they do not host a large university. By matching the counties and comparing the difference in the incidence of COVID-19 cases between them, the researchers were better able to quantify the impact of in-person instruction on positivity rates. The findings add to the evidence and concern that the focus of universities from the last semester contributed to the spread of the coronavirus. Students, parents, and the nation saw universities across the country bring students back to campus last fall only to have to send them home or isolate students amid outbreaks. An article published in September, which used cell phone data to track mobility in the weeks before and after the campus reopened, found that in-person instruction was associated with 3,000 new COVID-19 cases per day in the US. The number of positive COVID cases resulting from in-person instruction this semester could be even higher, said Martin Andersen, an assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and one of the authors of the paper. “We are sitting on a powder keg right now, among these new, more contagious COVID-19 variants that are circulating, they have all gone home for the winter holidays and returned,” he said. “We are already in a bad situation and this has the risk of making it extremely bad.” The increase in COVID cases in recent months has prompted many universities to make adjustments to their spring semesters. Some have delayed their start date, while others are beginning online instruction for the first few weeks and then moving on to face-to-face classes. “Colleges and universities for the spring semester should look at ways they can increase the implementation of mitigation strategies,” Barrios said. “I think at this point we all know what those mitigation strategies are.” They include widespread masking, frequent testing and tracking, social distancing, and limiting large in-person meetings. The record of universities in implementing these measures in the fall was mixed, and even in those schools with strong evidence and other protocols, officials still struggled to prevent outbreaks, given the social nature of university life. Findings from the CDC study and her own research indicate that schools should not only consider changes in their testing and other prevention strategies, but also in their educational strategies, Andersen said. A “fairly reasonable response” to the data on the role of in-person instruction in the spread of COVID-19 would be to switch to remote instruction, he added. “It’s clear now, both from the CDC study and from our own study, that universities have a role to play here in limiting transmission,” Andersen said. “They need to think about the steps they can take to mitigate the damage they are causing to their communities.”