In August, UNC made national headlines as a failed experiment for the reopening of higher education institutions during a global pandemic. With the rest of the semester being pushed online, University leadership has already begun to plan for the possible return of students in the spring.
While the future seems bleak — especially given how UNC handled the virus in the fall — there are several other universities that have been successful in their COVID-19 response plan. The actions taken by these schools are some that UNC can not only learn from, but implement into their own return plans.
It’s no question that the first thing that the University must reconsider is preventative testing. UNC failed to require testing for students returning to campus, an action implemented by schools such as Virginia Tech and Duke before the semester began. Furthermore, UNC must consider limiting housing to certain students — similar to how Duke only allowed first and second-year students to live on campus this year. This move would effectively limit the amount of students entering and staying on campus, decreasing the potential transmission of the virus. Once students return to campus, it is also imperative to continue testing consistently, regardless of whether or not individuals are symptomatic.
Nikhil Chaudhry, a first-year student at Duke University, explained that on-campus residents are tested twice a week, and are also subject to being selected for random COVID-19 tests. Additionally, students are expected to log their symptoms daily on a Duke-developed app. If one forgets, their Duke Card (which is used to access residential areas, dining halls and classroom buildings) is inactivated until the form is filled out. These systems can be used to explain why Duke has only had 67 positive cases since reopening.
In addition to testing, other schools are utilizing current research to develop plans to catch COVID-19 before it spreads. Both the University of Arizona and the University of California at San Diego have used wastewater testing of dormitories on campus to screen sewage from each building, searching for traces of the virus. By doing so, they can identify locations of infected students before test results return. When a dorm was identified to have traces of COVID-19, all individuals within the building were immediately tested and quickly quarantined, keeping an outbreak from spiraling out of control.
Although UNC can use the same technique, one of the lessons here is to listen to current research on the virus and work science into return plans, regardless of how unprecedented actions may be (after all, nothing about the COVID-19 pandemic has been precedented).
Aside from testing and precautions, UNC must also develop an effective plan on handling outbreaks when they arise — and they most definitely will. A prime example of a public university that handled cases without an exponential increase was the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The institution was the subject of national headlines about students congregating in large groups regardless of the pandemic.
The University developed technology in-house that would allow students to only enter campus buildings once it was verified that their COVID-19 test had come back negative. Additionally, testing was required for all on-campus students twice a week, but outbreaks still occurred.
However, following the spike in cases, the University of Illinois responded swiftly with increased testing and quickly began contact tracing and isolation precautions. After suspending campus activities, the university began testing around 10,000 people a day, and positivity rates have dropped below 0.5 percent. Although individuals were infected, the University took immense steps to ensure that those who did come in contact with the virus were properly isolated to prevent things from getting out of hand, unlike what UNC experienced in early August.