Directions for teachers: Ask your students to read the introduction to the online Science News articleHow 5 universities tried to handle COVID-19 on campus,” which explores five universities’ strategies for monitoring and stemming the spread of the coronavirus on campuses, and answer the following questions. A version of the story, “COVID-19 on campus,” appears in the February 27, 2021 issue of Science News. For a deeper dive into each university’s data as presented in the Science News story, see the discussion section of this Guide.

1. What factors make college campuses seem like risky places to be during the coronavirus pandemic?

The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads easily through large indoor gatherings and communal living spaces — similar to the dorms, cafeterias and lecture halls found on college campuses. And people can spread the virus to others before symptoms appear or while not ever showing symptoms.

2. What evidence supports the claim that in-person instruction on college campuses may contribute to the spread of COVID-19? What is the source of this evidence?

In the United States, counties with large colleges or universities that held in-person instruction last fall saw a 56 percent rise in COVID-19 cases in the three weeks after classes began compared with the three weeks before. Meanwhile, counties with large colleges or universities that offered only remote instruction saw an almost 18 percent drop in COVID-19 cases. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the findings.

3. Examine the graph titled “COVID-19 cases at five U.S. universities, fall 2020.” What five universities are represented on the graph? Define the x- and y-axes and describe one trend the graph shows.

The graph shows the number of COVID-19 cases for five universities: Colorado Mesa University, North Carolina A&T State, Rice University, University of Washington and University of Wisconsin. The x-axis shows time using data from roughly August 9 to November 29, and the y-axis shows the number of new COVID-19 cases per 1,000 students. Four schools experienced a large spike in cases at least once in the fall, with some schools experiencing more than one spike.

4. What types of testing did the universities provide to students?

PCR testing, LAMP testing, antigen testing and wastewater sampling.

5. What were some similarities and differences among the universities’ types of testing strategies? Explain how each type of testing impacted the university’s strategy.

All five universities provided PCR testing — the gold standard for diagnosing coronavirus infection. One school added LAMP testing, which is less sensitive than PCR testing but provides results faster. Another school added antigen testing, which helped identify students to quarantine. And yet another school sampled wastewater to monitor when an outbreak might be starting. The frequency of testing varied across the schools, and the schools also had different rules about other safety measures including mask wearing and public gatherings.

6. Computational geneticist Pardis Sabeti says that colleges are high risk, but also are places of innovation. Give an example of how universities have innovated during the pandemic.

Phone apps for symptom monitoring and contact tracing is one example of innovation.

7. What advice does Pardis Sabeti have for universities that are open for in-person learning?

Schools should double their civic engagement with students and broader communities as well as their public health measures to ensure safe behavior among the communities.

8. Are the testing strategies used by the five universities profiled in the Science News article representative of how all colleges and universities across the United States have handled the pandemic? Explain.

No. Some universities and colleges switched to fully remote learning. Universities and colleges that remained open for in-person instruction during the pandemic had no manual to follow and had to come up with ways to control infection, through trial and error, that they thought would work best for them. There is no standard approach. If the article were to look at another five schools that remained open for in-person instruction, the outcomes for each would probably be different. 

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