Sep 13, 2020 - Economy & Business

The colleges that are getting reopening right

Illustration of a doctor about to do a nasal swab of a school pennant with a cougar on it
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Universities that brought students back to campus have already seen a rough start to the fall, with more than 50,000 infections across the country. But some have seemingly cracked the code.

The big picture: A number of schools have managed to open up while quelling or even preventing outbreaks, either because they’re effectively testing and tracing or because they’ve got smaller student bodies and more rural locations.

While many bigger universities in cities decided to start off with remote learning, smaller campuses in smaller towns — like Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont — welcomed students with negative test results back, betting that the relative isolation could keep infections at bay.

  • So far, that seems to be working, says Joshua Salomon, a professor of medicine at Stanford.

Other campuses that have effectively navigated reopening include Wesleyan University in Connecticut and Ohio's Stark State College.

  • Wesleyan stands out because it is committed to giving students opportunities to safely hang out with one another — unlike many campuses, which are desperately attempting to stop socialization.
  • No infections have been traced back to Stark State since it opened for in-person classes months ago, ABC reports. Its success is partly due to the fact that it's a community college with 80% of students learning online already.

The catch: Some large universities are running aggressive testing campaigns, but they're still seeing high numbers of infections.

  • Experts have pointed to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has been testing students twice a week, as an example of the right way to reopen. But the university has seen a sharp uptick in cases recently.
  • "What's happening at UIUC is emblematic of what's happening all over the country," Salomon says. "It's very hard to get people to isolate for 14 days."
  • To prevent infections from turning into outbreaks, he says, bigger colleges should make sure dorms are clean and comfortable and offer easy meal delivery so infected students don't see quarantine as a nuisance or a punishment.

The bottom line: These success stories show that reopening can work, but typically only at small, rural campuses. At the big universities, even the best-laid plans inevitably come apart.

Go deeper