3 Colleges That Got Covid-19 Right and 2 That Didn’t

Millions of college and university students are trying to continue their education, even during a pandemic. How are different institutions doing?

Thousands of colleges and universities in the United States are trying to conduct the risky business of education during a pandemic that just won’t quit.

“There’s no clear playbook,” says Preeti Malani, MD, a spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America and chief health officer at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “Fundamentally, you’re having to redesign the college experience.”

Data are hard to come by, which means any assessment of the universities that are doing a good job at combatting the virus (versus those that are not) will be rough at best.

“Comparing university responses to Covid-19 on campus is [like] comparing apples and oranges,” says Jill Grimes, MD, author of The Ultimate College Student Health Handbook. “You can’t rely on the positivity rate because it depends on how extensively you’re testing.”

With that caveat, here’s a sampling of schools that have effective (or not-so-effective) Covid-19 responses.

University in Autumnsshepard/Getty Images

Thumbs up: Northeastern University

Testing has been key to successfully reopening schools. “The schools that are testing frequently are doing much better” than those that aren’t, says Gerri Taylor, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s Covid-19 task force.

Case in point: Northeastern University, which has students on campus and is holding in-person classes. The private university in Boston has conducted more than 310,000 Covid-19 tests among students, faculty, and staff, making it possible to get a handle on Covid-19 outbreaks before they happen. The strategy has yielded results: a seven-day positivity rate of only 0.6 percent among its 17,000 students.

The University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana is another success story. While it doesn’t boast the lowest positivity rate (0.39 percent), it does have one of the most stringent testing regimens. The school tests some 50,000 students, 2,800 faculty members and 8,200 staff members twice a week, according to an article in Nature. The tests are mandatory.

Thumbs up: Fort Lewis College

A much smaller institution (3,443 students, 650 employees), Fort Lewis College has also implemented a strict testing regimen, completing 6,000 Covid-19 tests since mid August. That works out to 600 to 800 tests a week, some of them mandatory, according to a spokesperson.

The college, located in Durango, Colorado, has also made changes to its ventilation system. When the weather was warm, it provided as much fresh outside air as possible to building spaces. During the winter, air will be recirculated through high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters that have the potential to capture virus particles. That’s in addition to social distancing and wearing masks. All of that led the Chronicle of Higher Education to name the college as one of the pandemic’s success stories.

Thumbs up: University of Arizona

In pure numbers, the University of Arizona in Tucson does not look that great. The school had a 4.2 percent positivity rate between August 4 and October 28. But administrators have one of the most innovative strategies to track Covid-19 among students and staff. Specifically, they scan for the coronavirus in poop (found in wastewater). University officials believe the strategy may have prevented an outbreak in August. After tracing Covid-19 in the sewage, 311 students and staff in one dorm were tested. Two positive but asymptomatic students quarantined.

It’s part of a national strategy spearheaded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) called the National Wastewater Surveillance System. Wastewater includes water from toilets, showers, and sinks. The same strategy was used to detect the polio virus in the last century.

Thumbs down: State University of New York (SUNY) at Oneonta

The president of SUNY Oneonta resigned on October 15. The reason? Seven hundred students had tested positive for Covid-19 which was “the most severe coronavirus outbreak of any public university in the state,” according to The New York Times. The explosive numbers meant in-person classes were canceled. State officials actually dragged students out of their dorm rooms as part of an effort to prevent the spread of the virus to the surrounding community.

The cases were blamed partly on student parties, but the school did not test incoming students at the beginning of the school year, according to CNN.

Thumbs down: University of Houston

The University of Houston is testing only students and staff who have symptoms or have been exposed to Covid-19, according to its website. This is despite ample evidence that the virus can be spread by people who don’t have symptoms, either because they will never have symptoms or because they have not yet developed them.

The university, which has a total enrollment of about 50,000, is apparently in good—or bad—company. One report found that a full two-thirds of American colleges and universities are testing only at-risk people or they have no clear plan at all.

Evolving responses

Covid-19 is not a static situation. We’ve seen cases rise in certain parts of the country only to fall and then spike again. Schools are microcosms trying to adapt.

“We need to acknowledge that that the geography of the pandemic is changing. You can’t have a stagnant policy,” says Stephen E. Hawes, PhD, chair of the department of epidemiology at the University of Washington School of Public Health. “Your overall prevalence in one community might be low right now. A month from now, it may be very different.”

Even within states, some universities are starting in-person classes while others are retreating into virtual classes.

Virtual learning has a much lower risk of spreading the virus and remote instruction can be done effectively, says Hawes. But while that part of college can be continued successfully, “it’s the social aspects, the non-academic aspects which are really problematic,” he says. In other words, the whole college experience.


Amanda Gardner
Amanda Gardner is a freelance health reporter whose stories have appeared in cnn.com, health.com, cnn.com, WebMD, HealthDay, Self Magazine, the New York Daily News, Teachers & Writers Magazine, the Foreign Service Journal, AmeriQuests (Vanderbilt University) and others. In 2009, she served as writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. She is also a community artist and recipient or partner in five National Endowment for the Arts grants.