Q&A: Local Universities Re-open Campus, Attempt To Control COVID-19

Oberlin College and Conservatory Sign on Campus
Oberlin College will test all students on campus for the coronavirus every month. [Walter Novak / Oberlin College]
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Universities in Northeast Ohio are welcoming students back to class, but the coronavirus is still very much a threat. Governor Mike DeWine says 40 percent of coronavirus cases last week were among college age adults. He linked the spike to the restart of schools.  All Things Considered host Tony Ganzer spoke with ideastream’s Jenny Hamel about local universities’ efforts to control COVID-19.

You talked with the president of Oberlin College, which started its academic year this week. What are they doing in terms of coronavirus testing? 

At this point, there are roughly 2,000 students who are on campus, plus faculty and staff. All of them were tested for COVID-19 when school started. Then there's what Oberlin President Carmen Twillie Ambar calls surveillance testing. Every week, a quarter of the students will be tested so that when a month is up, everyone on campus will have been tested for the coronavirus – and they'll do that every month. They also have rapid testing, so if suddenly someone has symptoms and thinks they came into contact with the virus, they'll test that way. So this has been a very aggressive testing protocol. And Twillie Ambar says it's being done to make sure students get to have that in-person experience. 

“How can we find a way not to be surprised by this virus in every way that we can get a snapshot of what's happening on our campus?” asked Twillie Ambar. “Because then we'll be able to see is there a little cluster happening because we're in the gym more, you know, because people are working out, what is happening and we'll be able to make some decisions that can be short of sending everybody home.”

That sounds like a huge undertaking, to test everyone every month. How are they orchestrating all of that? And what is the protocol for students who test positive? 

They converted a field house on campus into a testing center. They also partnered with a local hospital and are sending their tests to Chicago to be analyzed. Twillie Ambar said that prior to school even starting, the university informed students this is what the protocols are.

After the initial round of mandatory testing for all students and staff, Oberlin has confirmed seven positive COVID cases. And here's what happens to students who test positive: “So we took our hotel and we closed it for business and kept the rooms in the hotel for isolation for students who test positive. And then our health services checks on them daily. We have food delivered to them,” Twillie Ambar said.

So that's what Oberlin is doing. What are other local universities doing in terms of testing and also tracking coronavirus cases among students and also staff? 

On the Kent State campus, COVID-19 testing is only mandatory for athletes, per NCAA rules. But since early August, Kent's been testing students who are symptomatic or have been in close contact with someone who has the virus. At this point, Kent has recorded 12 cases of COVID and dormitory space has been reserved for the purpose of isolating students for 14 days who have tested positive. 

Over at Cleveland State University, they have a huge student population, about 16,000. Only 800 of those live on campus, however.

“Well, everybody before they came back was asked to sign and actually did sign a social contract,” said Forrest Faison, Chief Health of Strategy at Cleveland State. “And one of the things that we’ve asked them to do was to let us know if any of them, either faculty or staff or students, have a positive test.”

As of this Wednesday, 28 students health self-reported as positive. And university testing found at 10 students living on campus were positive and they are currently isolating. 

How are these universities sharing information about confirmed COVID cases with the public, but also government agencies? 

Oberlin and Kent are really forthright. They're sharing their case numbers on an online dashboard in an effort to be fully transparent. Oberlin says it's in constant communication, daily communication, with the Lorain County Health Department. Cleveland State is also in daily conversation with the Cuyahoga County Health Department about case numbers.

But all these schools, they acknowledge it's the beginning of the year. University officials are prepared to see COVID cases as a natural result of reopening campuses and classes. 

Kent's administration recently had to send out what they're calling an advisory to remind students, especially fraternities and sororities, that any gatherings of 10 people or more are not allowed and must be held virtually. 

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