What is the health cost of opening college campuses during a pandemic, for students and the broader community? New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finally offers an answer to the question that has plagued higher ed leaders for the last 10 months.
Cases of COVID-19 increased 56 percent in U.S. counties with large colleges that hosted classes in person early this fall, according to new analyses from the CDC, published Jan. 8. By contrast, counties with large colleges that held classes remotely saw a nearly 18 percent drop in cases.
Here’s how the CDC tallied the results. Researchers looked at nonprofit colleges around the country that enroll at least 20,000 students, and matched the institutions with their host counties. In 22 counties, large colleges started the fall semester with remote classes. In 79 counties, institutions started with in-person classes. These 101 large-college counties account for almost a third of the U.S. population.
The CDC then compared virus incidence in each county during the three weeks before and the three weeks after classes started. Researchers also compared those results to case counts in about 3,000 counties that do not have large colleges. In those places, there was a 6 percent decline in COVID-19 cases during the same period.
Not only did large-college counties have a significant increase in COVID-19 cases—they also experienced a 30 percent increase in “hotspot occurrence,” meaning that case counts rose especially rapidly.
Some colleges that attempted in-person teaching required students to get tested, but that increase in testing rates does not explain the spike in case counts, the study says, because it was accompanied by increases in test percentage positivity.
The research has some limitations. It did not account for mask and social distancing requirements in counties or on college campuses. It could not determine whether the virus was spread in college spaces like classrooms and dorms, or in the broader community—although it does note that “congregate living settings at colleges and universities were linked to transmissions.” And the study does not consider whether the same trends would apply in the case of small colleges.
Still, study authors note their hopes that the research will “inform ongoing college and university operations and future planning” and emphasizes that “efforts to prevent and mitigate COVID-19 transmission are critical for U.S. colleges and universities.”
The study falls short of explicitly recommending that colleges keep campuses closed—and teaching online. It does offer recommendations for best practices if college leaders do choose to invite students back to campus, including testing students for the virus when they return to campus and throughout the semester; enforcing social distancing and mask-wearing; and collaborating with local leaders and public health officials.
Whether this data affects what college leaders decide to do in the upcoming spring 2021 semester remains to be seen. It’s currently winter break for most institutions, many of whose leaders are assessing the results of the pandemic-coping plans they tried in the fall and considering what they’ll try for the new term.
That includes the president of Purdue University, an institution that enrolls more than 40,000 students. Mitch Daniels, an outspoken proponent of opening college campuses during the pandemic, released a letter on Jan. 4—a few days before the CDC report was published—sharing Purdue’s health data from the fall 2020 semester.
Daniels’ analysis takes a different tone than the CDC report. Purdue recorded 2,770 total student cases of COVID-19, Daniels noted, and “only 7 hospitalizations, most very short-term and non-life-threatening,” while there were more than 200 positive cases among staff.
The Purdue president compared his university’s fall performance favorably to that of its sports conference rivals, noting that Purdue “leads the Big Ten with the most students in classrooms” by offering 26 percent of classes in person in the fall and 45 percent partially in person, while its counterparts, “like Minnesota and Michigan State, threw in the towel on virtually any in-person instruction.”
Yet despite all the effort Purdue put into keeping its campus open, much teaching was still done online, Daniels acknowledged, adding that “students and their parents were rightfully aggrieved when the nature of the curriculum they expected was not what they actually encountered.” EdSurge found that to be the case during its pandemic podcast series, which followed a student and two professors at Purdue who spent very little time in classrooms in the fall.
Raising the percentage of classes Purdue offers in person, Daniels wrote, “is a major goal for this upcoming term.”
Daniels emphasized in his letter that his decision to reopen campus was based on the fact that the risk of dying from COVID-19 is low “among the youthful population that overwhelmingly makes up the Purdue community.” Yet the CDC results underscore that it’s not just students, faculty and staff who are affected by the decisions college leaders make as the pandemic worsens.
The report concludes that higher ed and county leaders have a responsibility to consider the negative health consequences that in-person instruction may have not only on students, but also among “persons at higher risk in the community,” especially in places where virus transmission could “exacerbate existing disparities.”
Daniels’ letter does not mention case counts in Purdue’s surrounding community in Tippecanoe County. As of Jan. 8, the New York Times pandemic database for Indiana shows there has been a total of 16,050 coronavirus cases in the county, and 106 deaths.