Why campus de-densification is a complicated set of decisions at the core of college re-opening plans

Expert Insight

Why campus de-densification is a complicated set of decisions at the core of college re-opening plans

College and university leaders continue to grapple with difficult questions around bringing their students, faculty, and staff back to campus safely. Tasked with digesting complex public health guidance quickly, campus repopulation working groups must decide how much (if any) testing will be conducted, how to organize any contact tracing, and how many rooms to allocate to quarantine and isolate infected students—all of which can help contain a COVID-19 outbreak. However, the other essential part of a safe return to campus is its de-densification: reducing the number of people congregating in a given location to decrease the risk of spread.

Why is de-densifying college campuses important?

59%

of all students (graduates and undergraduates) are connected indirectly through one of their peers (two steps) based on class interactions alone
of all students (graduates and undergraduates) are connected indirectly through one of their peers (two steps) based on class interactions alone

500

Number of other students that the average student shares a class with in a given week
Number of other students that the average student shares a class with in a given week

Public health research has long indicated that physical distancing, where people limit close contact to those within their household, is an important and effective mechanism to control the spread of coronavirus. However, this guidance becomes more complicated on college campuses; where households don’t exist and meeting new people and forming close connections is often at the core of the student experience. The highly networked and close-knit community that institutional leaders have spent years cultivating increases the risk of disease acquisition and transmission.

In fact, one study out of Cornell University found that in a given week the average student shares a class with more than 500 other students (4% of the student body). Based on class interactions alone, 59% of all students (graduates and undergraduates) are connected indirectly through one of their peers (two steps), and 92% are three steps or fewer removed from each other. Ostensibly these numbers are even higher if we account for interactions in residence halls, campus dining, and during extracurricular activities and social events. University life is dense-by-design which makes the imperative to de-densify all the more important.

What does de-densification look like in practice?

In practice, de-densification can mean different things based on the aspect of campus life in question. On the academic side of the house, this could include reducing face-to-face class sizes, mandating in-class physical distancing, offering online or hybrid courses, and changing class schedules to stagger start and end times. In residence halls this can include reducing the number of students who share a dorm or bathroom and limiting student interaction outside of class. In its essence, de-densification will inherently involve reducing residential and classroom capacity and bringing fewer students, faculty, and staff back to campus.

Why is creating a de-densification strategy so challenging?

Since it touches almost every element of campus life, an institutional de-densification strategy involves a complex set of decisions which affect one another and have downstream consequences.

Coordination across sub-groups essential for a cohesive repopulation plan

Coordination across sub-groups essential for a cohesive repopulation plan

A particularly thorny set of decisions surround the academic experience. Institutional leaders must determine their new, reduced classroom capacity, decide how to allocate courses to fill it, and accommodate faculty preferences and concerns about face-to-face teaching. This is further complicated by how decision-making authority for each of these steps can live in different units on campus. For example, facilities leaders often determine available classroom capacity whereas academic affairs leaders work on course prioritization and faculty allocation. Even within academic affairs some of these decisions may be centrally coordinated while others are delegated to individual colleges and departments. Often it is up to department leaders to determine which courses are essential for student degree progress and what modality they can be effectively taught in. All these factors can lead to situations where a core major requirement must be taught face-to-face, but the assigned faculty member is not be comfortable doing so.

These academic decisions spill into the student life terrain as well. In general, most lower division courses are larger and so in all likelihood will be taught online whereas smaller, upper division courses such as practicums, clinicals, and labs may be prioritized for face-to-face learning. This would require upper division students to return to campus instead of their lower division peers. However, this course prioritization can conflict with the desire among student success leaders to bring first years and sophomores to campus to ensure that such students are connected to the broader community and institution.

These considerations are further complicated by the need to fill reduced residential capacity. In most cases, residence halls are primarily used to house lower division students while the remaining students live in off-campus housing. Given that most face-to-face courses may primarily enroll upper division students, facilities and housing leaders must decide whether to require such students to live on-campus or forgo essential housing revenue. Alternatively, taskforce leaders must then consider whether lower division students will be willing to return to campus for a predominantly virtual experience.

These overlapping considerations coupled with decentralized decision-making processes creates many coordination challenges that must be overcome to develop a more robust and effective campus repopulation plan. To help you and your team address these problems, EAB has developed a COVID-19 Containment and Campus De-Densification Diagnostic to evaluate your institution’s readiness for returning to campus. Our team is also available to discuss your repopulation plan and walk-through your institution’s assessed readiness and recommendations for prioritized actions. Contact your Strategic Leader to arrange a conversation with EAB’s repopulation experts.

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