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5 Measures for Returning to Campus During a Pandemic

Posted by Richard Vohden August 18, 2020

As a new semester starts, an increasing number of colleges and universities are opting to forego in-person classes to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Others are welcoming students back after spending months developing plans to safely return to campus, including establishing new cleaning processes and protocols for those infected.

But as the number of daily cases of COVID-19 continues to surge in many states and communities, remaining open might become a challenge. Even schools with the best-laid plans must prepare for an uptick in cases and have a strategy to identify infections, control the spread, and agilely address related issues.

As the new academic year begins, higher education entities should consider the following measures as they navigate these unprecedented times:

  1. Proactively identify Cases. A potential outbreak on campus could overwhelm the resources of local health authorities, leading to a lag in identifying contacts. Schools must be able to quickly identify and isolate infected individuals, quarantine their close contacts, and — in worst-case scenarios — revert to online instruction. To identify worrying trends early, higher education institutions should consider carrying out their own testing of students and staff.
  2. Stay alert for trends. Analysis of campus-specific infection rates should allow schools to determine when infections cannot be controlled and proactively alter the plan to contain the spread. Because of their access to data, including class schedules and living arrangements, school staff can efficiently trace the contacts — within residence halls and academic settings — of infected students and take steps to stem the spread. Many schools have identified staff to receive training to conduct contact tracing.
  3. Consider expanding counseling services. Schools reserving housing to isolate infected students and quarantine close contacts need to understand the potential psychological implications of being restricted to a small room for up to 14 days, especially on already vulnerable students. School officials should clearly communicate the availability of counseling services, which can be offered via individual and group video chats.
  4. Identify related risks. Amid the pandemic, other key risks have emerged that could present additional threats as schools reopen — and may intersect with COVID-19. Of chief concern are the possibility of protests and civil unrest before and after the upcoming election. Remain vigilant about these risks and seek to balance the desire of students to demonstrate and gather against the need to limit COVID-19’s spread and keep campuses safe.
  5. Seek continuous improvement. Organizations across all industries have had to adapt to continually changing circumstances, which are unlikely to stop any time soon, requiring flexibility. Senior leaders should engage in regular tabletop exercises and develop contingency plans for a variety of potential situations. Consider, for example, what to do if housing reserved for quarantine and isolation nears capacity or if parents are reluctant to accept a potentially infected student back home.

As the pandemic continues, the fall semester will bring new and unexpected challenges for colleges and universities. To safeguard students and faculty, it is imperative that school officials plan for more COVID-19 cases on campus and prepare to act accordingly.

Richard Vohden