​5 lessons from COVID-19 and its impact on campus

Expert Insight

​5 lessons from COVID-19 and its impact on campus

It has been more than seven months since the University of Washington moved all classes online in response to the fledgling coronavirus pandemic, setting off a tidal wave of campus depopulation and remote instruction efforts across the United States. Since then, COVID-19 has exploded across the world, and colleges everywhere have had to rapidly respond to a continuously evolving crisis. Below are five things scientists have learned about COVID-19 that we did not know back in March—and EAB’s take on how this new knowledge shapes higher education planning moving forward.

1. Young people are not immune from serious cases of COVID-19

In the early days of the pandemic, most reported cases of COVID-19 tended to consist of older adults or those with underlying medical conditions. This drove a narrative that youths (both children and young adults) were largely immune from the disease and primarily needed to follow health protocols to protect others in the community. However, as the disease has mutated and testing capacities have expanded, this is no longer the case. During the summer as many as half of all new COVID-19 cases were detected in those under 35, and more than a third of young adults have medical conditions that may lead to hospitalization should they get the virus.

Impact on Higher Ed

The false narrative of “youth immunity” is one factor contributing to student noncompliance with masking and social distancing guidelines. Dispelling these inaccuracies for students living both on- and off-campus must be a priority for campuses to effectively bring students back to the classroom both now and in the future.

2. Quarantines and lockdowns have not been as effective as theorized

One of the earliest responses to the pandemic was the implementation of localized quarantines and widespread lockdowns to limit opportunities to transmit or become exposed to the disease. However, high-profile failures of isolation bubbles in major sports over the summer, as well as growing concerns about the physical and mental health impacts of long-term lockdowns on people (especially youths), have diminished the potential of these tools moving forward. While most universities avoided cases early on by dismissing students and faculty from campus in the spring, many institutions who have brought students back to campus this fall have had to deal with super-spreader events, often leading to temporary shutdowns.

Impact on Higher Ed

Setbacks in containment mechanisms require schools to further dedensify to best protect students. Universities should limit students on campus to only those requiring in-person instruction for degree progress as well as those students who lack alternative housing options, such as international students, housing insecure students, and students with unsafe home environments.

3. There is growing consensus that COVID-19 spreads through aerosols

Disease experts originally thought that COVID-19 spread through contact with droplets from an infected person either directly (e.g., coughing) or indirectly (e.g., remnants on surfaces). However, there now is widescale concern among the medical community that aerosol spread (e.g., tiny particles that comes from breathing, talking) contributes equally if not more so to the disease’s infection rate.

Impact on Higher Ed

Investments in surfacing cleaning and other sanitization, while still valuable, may be less important to prevent disease spread than universal mask-wearing and proper social distancing. Similarly, mechanisms that allow for greater air dispersion (e.g., being outdoors) or air cycling (e.g., faster air filtering units) might have outsized impacts on health outcomes.

4. Testing and tracing have been stymied, but major improvements are on the horizon

Since the early days of the pandemic, many communities have been plagued with insufficient testing supplies and inadequate capacity to rapidly respond to tests. This has likely led to an undercount of coronavirus cases and deaths in many places, as well as stymied efforts to warn and isolate potentially exposed individuals through contact tracing. However, recent announcements by pharmaceutical companies of low-cost, high-speed tests in production as well as by tech companies about native contract tracing software in most smartphones will likely increase “test and trace” effectiveness over the coming months.

Impact on Higher Ed

While these developments will not solve campus testing bottlenecks in the short term, they will likely allow to universities to deploy a more robust testing regiment for the Spring 2021 semester. As well, institutions that are developing but have not yet deployed contact tracing software may benefit from shifting these resources to other projects. 

5. A vaccine may be available sooner than we thought

When a COVID-19 vaccine was first theorized during the early days of the pandemic, most experts predicted it would take years before a proper concoction could be developed, trialed, and mass produced. However, while delays and setbacks are expected, promising news out of China, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States suggests that some vaccine contenders may be tested by the end of this year and available to deploy in 2021.

Impact on Higher Ed

While a vaccine will help soften the long-term impacts of the pandemic on campus, even the most optimistic timelines do not prioritize vaccine distribution to university students and staff during the 2020-2021 academic year. This is especially true if many vaccine candidates are delayed for investigations of possible unintended side effects. Universities should therefore continue to prioritize investments in flexible instruction, dedensification, and other preventative measures in their planning for the Spring 2021 semester.

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