College Openings Found to Coincide With Community Covid Surges

  • Areas where big campuses reopened saw cases rise 56%, CDC says
  • Some colleges pushing back spring starts as virus surges

The reopening of large college campuses last fall coincided with new coronavirus outbreaks in surrounding communities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

New cases rose by more than 56% in counties where those colleges were located, 21 days after classes restarted, a CDC report released Friday found. Meanwhile, counties where large colleges opted for remote instruction saw Covid cases decline by 17.9%.

Colleges saw significant drops in enrollment last fall as a result of the pandemic and many reopened for in-person classes in part because of financial pressure linked to declining student enrollment. Campus leaders hoped improved mitigation efforts adopted during the fall — including mask wearing, rapid testing, and quarantining of affected students — would allow them to continue in-person classes safely.

Holiday travel stoked fears over a surge in cases, leading many schools to reconsider spring start dates. The CDC’s report underscores public health risks linked to returning to classes in person.

Photographer: Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A classroom sits empty at University of Baltimore in Maryland on April 25, 2020.

The CDC study didn’t adjust for mitigation strategies adopted at state or local levels or on campuses. It also couldn’t determine whether new cases were connected to campuses or community transmission.

Efforts to Minimize Spread

The CDC report said counties should consider how in-person instruction may affect new cases among high-risk people in surrounding communities.

New cases among adults 60 and older who are more susceptible to the virus follow increases in spread among younger adults, the report said. Strategies such as testing when students return to campus and throughout the semester could be effective in curbing the spread of the virus, the CDC said.

The report examined 101 counties with not-for-profit colleges enrolling more than 20,000 students. In roughly 78% of those counties, schools opted for in-person instruction; classes were remote in the other 22%.

The findings may have limited use for small colleges, many of which reopened with stringent mitigation efforts.

The CDC report mirrors previous research that found campus reopenings contributed to new Covid-19 cases, said Chris Marsicano, an assistant professor of education at North Carolina’s Davidson College who leads a team tracking colleges’ response to the pandemic. It puts a new spotlight, however, on institutions that may pose the greatest public health risk because of their size.

“It sounds the alarm that large public institutions do not have the resources they need to keep Covid-19 cases down,” he said. “When those institutions do go for in-person instruction, they are putting faculty, students, and staff at risk.”

Smaller colleges have kept the virus in check with regular testing on campus. Many of the biggest institutions lack the funding—at least $30 million each in a conservative estimate—to test students weekly, Marsicano said.

Scrambled Spring Reopenings

Some large colleges have announced delays for the spring semester in light of concerns over an increase in cases from holiday travel. The number of new cases in the U.S. hit a record high in the first week of January.

Syracuse University in New York pushed the spring start date back two weeks, while Mississippi State University and Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania delayed the return to classrooms by five days, the Wall Street Journalreported.

Data collected by the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College showed that more than 440 four-year colleges had opted for primarily in-person instruction as of September 2020. Another 530 schools had moved classes either fully or primarily online. More than 380 other schools took a “hybrid” instruction approach.

The Initiative plans to release new data collected on spring reopening plans next week. The vast majority of institutions tracked by Davidson appear to be sticking with the same plans they adopted in the fall, Marsicano said.

“If I were a college president right now, I would be advocating that any federal bailout of the states have in it some sort of dedicated funding for coronavirus testing, at least until the vaccine can be administered across the country,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at akreighbaum@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com

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