Reflections on the Comprehensiveness and Equity Considerations of Institutional Plans for Fall 2020 Reopening
Last month, Ithaka S+R launched an effort to aggregate and synthesize information related to the fall reopening of colleges and universities to facilitate institutional collaboration and planning. As of July 10th, we have synthesized 57 institutional plans into a single resource (click here to view), and plan to continually update this resource with new and evolving information. We are publishing findings from our review of these plans in a series of blog posts hosted on our COVID-19 page. The first two blogs in this series are:
- Overarching Findings from 57 Fall 2020 College Reopening Plans, published July 16, 2020
- Testing, Tracing, and Supported Isolation: A Synthesis of 57 Fall 2020 College Reopening Plans, published July 17, 2020
In this post, we build off of our findings presented in previous posts to answer the following question:
To what extent do these plans represent comprehensive approaches to resuming operations in the fall and implementing a rigorous testing, tracing, and supported isolation program?
As fall approaches, institutions must work to identify gaps in existing plans, and make real-time adjustments as the COVID-19 crisis continues to unfold in unexpected and devastating ways. Below, we reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the 57 institutional plans processed to date.
How comprehensive are Fall 2020 college reopening plans?
All 57 institutions included in the resource plan to invite at least some students back to campus in the fall. As mentioned in previous posts, these 57 plans vary in format, content, and level of detail. Yet, all the plans appear to include comprehensive information on a select set of areas related to fall reopening. These areas include changes to the academic calendar and anticipated modes of instruction; modifications to classrooms and shared, residential spaces; face covering requirements; and efforts to encourage community cooperation with new health and safety protocols (see here for more details on the institutional characteristics of included colleges and universities, and on specific plans for resuming on-campus activities in the fall).
Despite the comprehensiveness of many of the plans, there are some notable gaps in the information included. First, most plans are silent on the extent to which equity concerns influence and inform institutional planning for the fall. Only a minority of institutions—the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Spelman College, to name a few—explicitly specify that they are applying an equity lens to the planning process. Some institutions are offering exemptions to their rules about which students will return to campus based on considerations of students’ personal circumstances, but aside from housing accommodations, few institutions spell out specific strategies or approaches to support or protect those populations who are most vulnerable to the health or financial impacts of the disease.
Second and relatedly, the majority of the 57 reopening plans analyzed are largely focused on students and the academic enterprise of the institution. Most do not provide details on how institutions plan to keep non-faculty staff, especially essential employees and contract workers, safe as students return to campus. Even fewer outline their efforts to keep members of the local communities in and around their campuses safe. Protecting and providing for vulnerable staff and the surrounding community are essential components of any equitable plan for fall reopening.
Despite these gaps, the plans we have reviewed are fairly comprehensive, and represent substantial investments in efforts to safeguard the campus community. Yet, the challenge institutions are facing, especially as the number of virus cases surge in many states, is immeasurable, and there is little evidence that the plans will be sufficient. Paramount to an institution’s ability to keep its community safe is a robust, comprehensive plan for COVID-19 testing, tracing, and supported isolation (TTSI). Thus, we continue our analysis by reflecting on the comprehensiveness of institutional approaches to TTSI.
Reflections on the Comprehensiveness of Institutional Plans for Testing, Tracing, and Supported Isolation
In our prior blog post, we investigated institutional approaches to the three elements of TTSI: testing, tracing, and supported isolation. Our review revealed a significant amount of variety across institutional plans, highlighting that institutional approaches to TTSI are highly dependent on an institution’s individual circumstance and characteristics.
In our data collection, we track specific approaches to COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and housing and caring for students in need of supported isolation. Of the 57 institutional plans, the vast majority specify at least one testing protocol they plan to implement in the fall. Thirty-five institutions articulated plans to test all students who return to campus immediately before arrival, on arrival, and/or a short period after arrival. Fifty-two institutions mention approaches to testing carried out throughout the fall semester. By contrast, only 39 institutions mention plans for contact tracing, and of those, a majority (27) plan to use online symptom trackers, through which members of the campus community will report whether they are experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms on a daily basis. There appears to be the least amount of variation in institutional plans for supported isolation. Of the 46 institutions that provide details on this topic, 42 have set aside on-campus dormitories for students in need of supported isolation.
As we evaluate these findings, we must remember that a TTSI program is only as strong as its weakest element. For example, if an institution has a rigorous testing regime planned but no coordinated tracing effort, the disease may spread at unmanageable rates. Similarly, an effective contact tracing program is meaningless if an institution has no place to house individuals who must be isolated.
Of the 57 institutions whose plans we reviewed, 32 included concrete information on all three elements of TTSI. The distribution of these 32 institutions across institution types mirrors that of the 57 institutions in the larger sample set: roughly a third are public institutions, and the majority are large institutions with total enrollments over 10,000 students. Relative to the larger sample, these 32 institutions are more likely to have affiliated hospitals or medical centers. They also are more likely to be inviting all or nearly all undergraduate students to live on or near campus, as opposed to inviting a limited subset of students to campus. Interestingly, an institution’s likelihood of publicizing a complete TTSI plan does not appear strongly related to an institution’s wealth (relative to other institutions in this sample). While some of the wealthiest institutions on an endowment per student basis belong to these 32 institutions (Harvard and Yale Universities, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example), several less wealthy institutions like Howard University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute have also articulated comprehensive TTSI plans.
One strategy that is notably absent from all but seven institutional plans is the intention to test individuals who have been in close contact with someone who has contracted COVID-19. Testing close contacts, alongside testing symptomatic individuals, is part of CDC’s updated recommendations for testing at colleges and universities. While others may plan to test contacts but have not yet specified, it appears that several institutions instead plan to ask exposed, close contacts to quarantine for an extended period of time, most frequently 14 days. While this preserves resources expended on tests, it may well mean that more students will have to quarantine than necessary, which may in turn introduce added disruption to the academic calendar and put pressure on housing and support services for students in quarantine and isolation.
As we evaluate the comprehensiveness of publicized plans and the transparency of institutional approaches to all three TTSI elements, Tufts University offers an example. Tufts plans to host as many students as possible on campus for the fall and has laid out detailed plans for TTSI implementation on campus. Tufts will test all students on reopening, conduct regular screening throughout the semester, test all individuals with symptoms and all close contacts of individuals with symptoms. Testing will be conducted in-house by health services. The university will launch an online symptom tracker for individuals to monitor symptoms, and trained Tufts staff will work with local health officials to implement an interview-based contact tracing regime. In recognition of additional housing needs created by social distancing and the need for isolation spaces, Tufts is constructing temporary residential complexes to house individuals in supported isolation.
Yet, even with several institutional examples of rigorous, comprehensive plans for COVID-19 testing, tracing, and supported isolation, the absence of equity considerations within these risk mitigation plans is notable and concerning. Perhaps not surprisingly, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are most forthcoming in addressing the disproportionate health, social, and financial impacts of COVID-19 on communities of color. As stated in Spelman College’s plan for a limited campus reopening in the fall, “first and foremost [our] working group took into consideration the fact that African Americans are the community most vulnerable to the severities of the virus and are experiencing the highest death rate from the infection.” Of note, Spelman College and its Atlanta University Center Consortium counterparts, Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University, reversed plans to bring back a subset of students to campus in a July 20 announcement, in which President Mary Schmidt Campbell cited the worsening public health crisis, a lack of sufficient hospital capacity and contact tracing in the surrounding community, and conflicting public policy as key data points in driving this decision. When it comes to equity and community considerations, other institutions should take their cues from these HBCU leaders. As institutions continue to update and modify their plans for the fall, it is incumbent on them to be transparent about how their plans for TTSI explicitly address health and other inequities among campus populations, both students and staff.
Recent spikes in cases among college students residing close to campus—from UC Berkeley to University of South Carolina, to several institutions recording infections among athletic programs—confirm the potential for COVID-19 to spread within campus environments and reiterate the necessity of robust health and safety protocols if colleges and universities do bring students back to campus. These analyses provide some insight into how institutions plan to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on campus and keep communities safe. As is evident, both the approaches to TTSI, and the comprehensiveness of these approaches (as articulated in publicly-available sources) vary widely across institutions. Institutions must continue to bolster TTSI as the summer progresses. Most importantly, institutions must address explicitly how they plan to ensure health equity given the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 among members of their respective communities.
As we process more institutions’ plans and update for changes in those plans already included, we will refresh these analyses and report on new trends. All future blog posts will be hosted on our COVID-19 fall reopening page. To find out more about this project, and how your institution can participate in this effort, please contact Elizabeth Banes (Elizabeth.Banes@ithaka.org).