To prevent from becoming COVID-19 hotspots, Colorado’s universities look to change traditional campus culture

As fall approaches, Colorado’s universities face a new challenge: how to reopen campuses safely, especially when students come in from different states.

At Colorado College, 84% of the student population is from out-of-state, presenting the school and El Paso County with a challenge. How do you accept 2300 students from around the country and beyond, safely?

It’s a problem for Colorado’s higher education institutions as 20-29 year-olds have some of the highest infection rates in the state with a month before classes start.

“We are still looking at best practices that, truthfully, change on almost a daily basis,” said Heather Horton, a member of the Colorado College Testing, Treatment, and Response Work Group.

Colorado College is unique among Colorado Schools in while it has fewer students – 4 in 5 students come from outside Colorado.

The college believes their unique academic schedule, where students take one class at a time for three and a half weeks, puts them in a flexible position to adapt quickly to COVID-19. Because of this, other universities are reaching out to use CC’s block model.

Even with the added flexibility, an air of uncertainty still surrounds the approaching school year.

“The state’s approach allows for communities to be in different phases (stay at home or safer at home or protect our neighbors) [that] will help ensure that if we do get outbreaks and numbers begin to go up, communities will be able to respond quickly,”  said Megan McDermott, Director of Communication for Colorado Department of Higher Education.

Highlighted in CDHE’s reopening plan, “A bridge to the Next Normal,” the department wants to see Colorado’s universities and colleges adopt a strict combination of testing and health guidelines, physical campus changes, and cultural shifts to create safe education spaces.

CDHE suggests schools implement strict social distancing and mask protocols when students are inside. The state emphasizes the benefit of contact tracing and testing as a means to control the spread. Communication with local health officials, both for student medical services and for minimizing the danger to the surrounding community are emphasized as well. The suggestions go beyond physical health, alerting universities to ensure the mental health of its students and staff.

The state is providing a framework for how to reopen safely by having a number of physical changes to campuses such as barriers between professors and students and designated entries and exits for campus buildings.

When students aren’t in class, the state suggests changes to reduce the risks with take out dining options in food halls and restructured residence halls with cohort living and limited building access.

Culturally, education and social awareness can be used to get students to comply with the new rules. If that’s not enough, changes to codes of conduct could provide a disciplinary incentive as well.

Even with all the suggestions, reopening campuses is still very much a trial and approach.

Colorado College will have a phased reopening with freshman students coming onto campus for the first month while returning students take their first three-week block online. Then the school anticipates all students will return to campus for in-class learning in September.

To identify potential outbreaks, Colorado College has partnered with UC Health as well as its student health services provider, Optum, to provide on-campus testing for symptomatic students. Their hope is this partnership will provide fast turnaround times for COVID-19 results.

It’s unclear if there will be testing for people with no symptoms.

“That’s still part of what we are finalizing at this point in time,” said Horton. They also have expanded their housing options to reduce density and identified places to quarantine students on campus.

The college hopes to effect a cultural change so students don’t adopt a carefree attitude towards the virus putting students, staff, and the community at risk.

“Every one of us as a community member needs to be really committed to making sure we are all doing our part to keep each other and the broader Colorado Springs community safe. We know what we do in our bubble doesn’t necessarily stay in our bubble,” said Horton.

Between incentivizing good behavior and changing the code of conduct to match the new social expectations of students, Horton says the school hopes that students will follow guidelines. “I love that idea of carrot and stick and that is definitely what we are trying to develop,” said Horton.

But amongst young people, there is a sentiment that it’s only a matter of time before they get the virus.

Health professionals fear that young people won’t take COVID-19 and community spread seriously because they believe the virus only causes mild symptoms in their demographic.

Doug Norberg, a senior at Colorado College, contracted COVID-19 in June after attending an outdoor gathering at a friend’s house in Boulder. After several people at the house tested positive, Norberg got tested to be safe. Several days later, his results confirmed that he had COVID, but he only experienced a mild fever for one morning.

“Everyone I know in Boulder has either had the virus or currently has it and none of them have experienced any symptoms. They are all asymptomatic,” said Norberg. “People aren’t taking it too seriously.”

He believes that CC should go ahead and reopen even in the face of positive cases growing among college ages.

“If it does hit CC, it’s really not a big deal amongst 21-year-olds from what I’ve seen and my perspective because they’ve all been asymptomatic and as long as people are wearing masks and being safe about the virus in general, CC should continue classes regularly,” said Norberg.

In Colorado, according to the Department of Public Health and Environment, people ages 20-29 are responsible for 20.19% of cases in the state but only .63% of the total number of COVID deaths.

With the mortality rate of college-aged students low, colleges and universities are concerned campuses could become hotspots that spread to families of college students or the community if students fail to take precautions seriously.

“While we understand the concerns, we also know that remote education has its own set of challenges and consequences,” said McDermott in response to broader public health concerns. CDHE says that many schools are considering some sort of COVID training for all on-campus students and using peer pressure and updated codes of conduct to limit risky behaviors. “[Schools] all recognize that affecting student behavior is a significant challenge and they are taking precautions,” said McDermott.

PULP contacted El Paso County Public Health on this story, the department did not respond.

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