Colleges need to look beyond stopping parties to safely reopen in spring 2021

October 27, 2020

Jagpreet Chhatwal, Trisha Dwivedi, and Benjamin Linas wrote first opinion article in STAT. Below are excerpts from this piece.

As colleges and universities reopened in the fall of 2020, many emerged as hot spots of Covid-19 transmission. The narrative that has emerged to explain this centers on irresponsible, party-going 20-somethings who refuse to listen to reason.

Some schools have expelled students who held gatherings in their dorms. A few governors have called out these students as drivers of the epidemic. With no national Covid-19 control plan in sight, it may be politically expedient to blame youths for the nation’s woes.

Is controlling Covid-19 on college and university campuses really as simple as ending parties? Or are other forces at play?

Data analysis and simulation modeling point to the latter. Understanding the dynamics of campus coronavirus transmission can help schools be better prepared for the spring of 2021.

Let’s start with the summer of 2020, when a second wave of Covid-19 flooded the U.S., with the daily case count exceeding 70,000 in July. The number of total active cases was many folds higher than the reported cases. Based on estimates from the Covid-19 Simulator we developed with other colleagues, Texas and Florida each had more than 100,000 active cases in mid-August, just as college students were preparing to return to school.

Those surges coincided with students leaving their homes and traveling to colleges in other states. This is an important point: Many of the outbreaks seen on college campuses started with cases that were imported from communities with high Covid-19 incidence and prevalence as students left those states and returned to campus.

Using enrollment data from more than 800 colleges and universities and active Covid-19 cases in each state, we estimated the incoming prevalence of Covid-19 cases on those campuses if all undergraduate students had attended college in person for the fall semester. This information helps connect the dots and identify the underlying source of outbreaks.