CDC: In-Person College Associated with Increased Covid-19 Spread

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Counties across the U.S. in which college campuses reopened to in-person learning at the start of a fall semester saw Covid-19 cases spike, according to a recent study from the CDC and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

For the study researchers looked at all not-for-profit large U.S. colleges and universities and the instructional formats when the fall semester began. They then examined Covid-19 case numbers in the counties in which these universities were located for 21 days prior to the start of classes and 21 days after. During this time period, counties home to universities that did not reopen physical campuses saw a 17.9 percent decline in Covid-19 incidence, while counties home to large colleges saw a 56 percent increase in cases. Counties that were not home to large colleges or universities saw a 5.9 percent decline in Covid-19 incidence. 

Tech & Learning recently asked Dr. Andrew Leidner, the lead author of the report, to explain its implications for higher ed. 

What Should University Officials Know About This Study? 

“Colleges and university settings were found to be associated with increasing case burden of Covid-19,” Leidner says. “Engaging in recommended activities to reduce Covid-19 transmissions, such as testing of student populations and encouraging the use of masks, hand hygiene, and social distancing, can benefit the universities’ students, staff, and instructors as well as the broader community.” 

Since the study was based on data from the beginning of the fall semester, when Covid rates were lower, it’s unclear what impact in-person college classes might have as the spring semester resumes. “Because the incidence of COVID-19 cases is so much higher now, it is especially important for colleges and universities to consider increased mitigation efforts,” Leidner says.

What About K-12 Schools?  

The study results should not be applied to K-12 schools in which spread seems to occur differently. For instance, one recent study found that in U.S. counties in which Covid-19 hospitalizations were already low, reopening K-12 schools to in-person classes was not associated with increased hospitalizations. 

“Two possible factors for differences between those two settings might include congregate living settings, both on- and off-campus, and social activities,” Leidner says. 

What Can Higher Ed Officials Do to Contain the Spread?  

Encouraging students to be serious about mitigation whether they are participating in classes on campus or online is critical, says Leidner.

“Increases in infection with the virus that causes Covid-19 among younger age groups can result in increased community spread to older age groups who are more at risk for severe outcomes,” Leidner says. “Colleges and universities are important parts of their communities. Students, faculty, and staff should wear a mask, stay 6 feet apart, and avoid gatherings to slow the spread.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.