As more Pennsylvania colleges prepare to bring students back to campus for spring semester, a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that doing so in the fall significantly affected the number of COVID-19 cases in the community.
The study found that counties with colleges enrolling more than 20,000 students that opted for in-person instruction for the fall 2020 semester experienced a 56% increase in the average number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people, while counties with large colleges that chose remote-only instruction saw a 17.9% decrease.
But study authors said they could not say whether the spike in cases in surrounding communities were caused by cases on campuses.
“Whether cases in university counties were college- or university-related (i.e., through contact in classrooms, dormitories, cafeterias, or off-campus activities) or related to community transmission could not be discerned,” the study said.
But faculty who have been concerned for months about the impact of moving students back to campus for in-person instruction said the information is convincing enough and universities should take heed.
”I think it’s pretty clear,” said Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychology professor, “that if you’re a big university, you probably shouldn’t be having in-person courses until a lot of people are vaccinated or there’s some other way of mitigating transmission.”
To measure the incidence rate of COVID-19, researchers analyzed data from 101 counties across the country with large colleges. They did not identify the counties or the colleges. They studied county-level average estimates of COVID-19 cases, testing rates, percentage of positive tests and hotspot status for 21 days before and after a college began instruction to determine whether there had been an increase of coronavirus cases where the college was located.
Counties with large colleges that had in-person instruction were “matched” with counties without large colleges, but were otherwise similar in terms of population size and geographic location, to compare the impact of returning students to campus with using remote learning.
While the study had limitations, the link between higher COVID-19 incidence and in-person instruction was strong enough that researchers recommended that universities increase testing capacity, especially in counties that might have one or more risk factors, such as higher levels of older adult populations or high rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease.
Pennsylvania State University officials say they have been doing that and will continue to do so.
Centre County, home to Penn State, had very few cases before the fall semester began, but there have been nearly 10,000 as of January. Penn State’s University Park campus has recorded more than 5,100 cases. About 10,300 students lived in Penn State dorms last fall, about 74% of capacity, and many more in the surrounding community. The university held a mix of in-person and remote classes.
Penn State said that an increase in cases was expected, given how students swell the population, and that the university exceeded recommended health protocols.
”The CDC study conflated campus and community cases, so more information is needed to fully understand the relationship,” university spokesperson Rachel Pell said, pointing to the study authors’ findings. “It’s important to note that contact tracing indicated no spread of the virus from students to employees.”
She said a study by Penn State faculty of the State College community found just a small increase in community exposure from September to December, even though about 30% of students were exposed.
But Sarah Townsend, an associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese at University Park and a member of the Coalition for a Just University, which has been critical of the school’s reopening plan, said she found it “implausible” that students’ return to the region had no impact on the county case counts.
”That’s an insult to our intelligence and an insult to the intelligence of everybody in Centre County,” she said.
Penn State has delayed the in-person start to its spring semester to Feb. 15. Classes will begin remotely later this month. Pell said the university plans to offer more testing this spring, expanded contact tracing and greater coordination with local officials and health care providers.
Townsend’s group wants the university to test students twice a week when they return. But she said students should not return at all until conditions improve.
”Given what happened in the fall, I can’t believe they are even contemplating bringing students back in the spring,” she said. “The local community has already suffered enough.”
But Pell said the local economy also is a factor.
”The university also plays a significant economic role … with small business owners in and around State College,” she said, “and many were supportive of a return to on-campus learning, too.”
Temple University expects to have 1,600 students living in residence halls this spring, about half the number that started the fall semester, with many more living in the surrounding community. More classes will be in-person and the university plans to increase testing to about 20,000 per week.
The university reverted to almost all remote instruction less than two weeks into the fall semester after more than 200 cases occurred.
Last June, Steinberg, the Temple psychology professor, penned an op-ed in the New York Times, claiming that most college reopening plans for the fall were so “unrealistically optimistic” they bordered on “delusional” and could result in virus outbreaks among students, faculty, and staff.
The results of the CDC study were no surprise, he said.
”It is exactly what I thought would happen,” he said, noting that people who work and learn on campuses live in the community. “The things that happen on campus affect not only people on the campus but also people who live and work around the campus.”
Temple’s faculty union credited the university with working hard to avoid a repeat of the fall and said the school’s plan for testing and contact tracing appears better. But faculty are still concerned, given the case counts city-wide and particularly in the university’s neighborhood, said Steve Newman, president of the Temple Association of University Professionals.
”We are worried that Temple will generate more cases that will put our neighbors at risk and that will increase the load” on employees at Temple’s hospital, he said.
HACC, which enrolls 19,450 students across five campuses, chose mostly remote-only learning for the fall semester. The decision was made as “a mitigation effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 to our students, employees and the communities we serve in [their] 11-county footprint,” John J. “Ski” Sygielski, president and CEO of HACC, said in a statement. Over the fall, COVID-19 cases in Dauphin County, where HACC’s Harrisburg campus is located, did not begin increasing significantly until October, more than a month after the college started its fall semester.
The college will be mostly remote-only through summer 2021 — Sygielski cited the spiking cases in fall 2020, the lack of universal testing and the anticipated year-long timeline for the vaccine rollout as factors that contributed to the decision.
“Our COVID-19 Task Force reviewed data from our region and researched best practices in mitigation techniques as well as guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and the Pennsylvania Department of Health,” he said. “With a virus like COVID-19, there is no way to ensure safety for anyone. As a result of the task force recommendation, college leadership and I concluded that the safest decision for all was to offer mostly remote and online classes.”
In Glassboro, Rowan University proceeded with in-person instruction for the fall 2020 semester after deciding to prioritize “a learning environment that students would thrive in,” said Scott Woodside, director of the university’s wellness center. While the capacity in Rowan’s isolation units never exceeded 40%, known cases of COVID-19 had tripled by the end of October — nearly two months after the start of the semester.
Woodside said students will be “staggered” into in-person learning for the spring semester, which has already been delayed by a week. The plan is to ramp up surveillance, he said, to keep the coronavirus under control on and off campus. Most of the students who have tested positive have been cooperative with contact tracers, Woodside said, and the university has held multiple town halls with Glassboro residents to address their concerns.
“We’re going from roughly 4,000 tests we captured in the fall to close to probably 50,000 by the end of the spring,” Woodside said. “We saw what happened in September and October ... we did have an increase in cases, so a similar thing may happen again.”
Eric Milou, a professor of math at Rowan, said that the CDC study simply confirmed what everyone believes — “that there’s more community spread with more students on campus.” He said faculty members have been asking Rowan to release the positivity rate on their COVID-19 data dashboard, but that the university continues to refuse because of an “imbalance of data” that may not accurately reflect the situation.