Directions for teachers:

Ask students to read the introduction of the online Science News article “How 5 universities tried to handle COVID-19 on campus.” Ask them to review all university profiles in the article and choose one campus to focus on. Students should read about that university and answer the first set of questions on their own. Then have students partner with a classmate who chose a different university. Each pair should discuss and answer the two remaining sets of questions. A version of the story, “COVID-19 on campus,” appears in the February 27, 2021 issue of Science News.

As an optional extension, have students write an article about how their high school has managed the COVID-19 pandemic. Students can follow a template similar to the one used to profile universities in the Science News article.

Want to make it a virtual lesson? Post the online Science News article “How 5 universities tried to handle COVID-19 on campus”to your virtual classroom and use the questions to discuss the article with your class.

Choose a campus
Answer the following questions for one of the universities profiled in the Science News article.

1. What university did you choose and how many students live on its campus?

Answers in this section will vary based on which campus students chose. Example answers are given for the University of Wisconsin-Madison — 31,650 students live on or near the UW-Madison campus.

2. What kind of testing did the university provide at the start of the fall semester? What were the requirements around testing?

Mandatory PCR tests were given biweekly to students and staff who were in university housing.

3. What other safety measures did the university put in place?

UW-Madison required masks on campus both indoors and outdoors, as well as contact tracing and event restrictions based on CDC guidelines.

4. When did the university see the largest spike in cases? Why did the spike occur? Did the school change its testing strategies after that spike? If so, how? Be sure to look at both graphs when answering the question.

The largest spike in cases occurred around September 10, 2020. Hundreds of students tested positive for the coronavirus when the campus opened in late August, and some students gathered in large groups without masks on campus despite restrictions on such gatherings. After the spike, the university started testing students twice a week.

5. Did the university include any unique approaches to its testing plan? Explain.

When the university moved to weekly testing of students in September 2020, the school created a staggered testing schedule where roommates and next-door neighbors were tested on consecutive days. The staggered testing helped administrators quickly determine outbreak sites.

6. Compare trends in data from new daily cases and new daily tests. Name a point where the two graphs had similar trends and one where the trends differed. Be sure to include the quantitative data and units associated with each point.

Around September 10, 2020, new daily cases peaked at above 120 cases per 7-day rolling average and new daily tests peaked at above 1,400 tests per 7-day rolling average. In late October, new daily cases were low, hovering around 20 cases per 7-day rolling average, and new daily tests remained relatively high, around 1,200 tests per 7-day rolling average.

7. How might trends in the graph of new daily cases relate to trends in the graph of new daily tests?

Early in the fall semester, both the number of new daily cases and number of new daily tests were high — before the university did a lot of testing, testing was done to confirm cases showing symptoms. Once the university began testing more frequently, the number of new daily cases decreased — tests were given regardless of the presence of symptoms, which helped the university track and prevent potential outbreaks. 

8. What are the university’s plans for the spring semester? How do the plans differ from the fall semester plans?

During the spring semester, the university plans to test undergraduate students twice a week, require testing for building access and ensure that faculty and staff have a negative test result within eight days of visiting campus. The university also is making symptom monitoring and contact tracing mandatory through an app. In the fall, the initial plan was to test students every other week. The plan changed to weekly tests after cases spiked.

Compare approaches

Before answering the following questions, briefly review your answers to the previous set of questions with your partner.

1. How are the campuses of the two schools similar and different? Consider population size, location, and other factors in your answer.

Answers in this section will vary based on which campuses students chose. Students may include the number of students who live on campus, the size of the school and where in the country the school is located.

2. Compare the graphs of new daily cases for your chosen university and your partner’s chosen university. How are the trends in data of the two schools similar or different? How did major events affect the trends?

Students should be looking at the highest peaks on the graphs and comparing when those occurred and what events listed on the graphs may have contributed to the peaks. Groups can discuss how large the peaks were and how long each peak lasted. They should also compare the low points of the graphs.

3. Which school’s approach to managing COVID-19 on campus was more successful? Explain using evidence from the article.

Students should analyze which school’s strategies led to a decrease in cases and whether they were able to maintain that decrease over time.

Reflect on your experience

Before answering the following questions, discuss with your partner any safety measures that your own school has used during the pandemic.

1. Brainstorm similarities and differences that exist between a college campus and your high school environment.

Student answers will vary but could include population size, time students spend on the school campus, size of the school campus, groups of people who work or reside on campus, etc.

2. Is there a strategy you learned from one or both of the universities that you think would be beneficial for your school? Why or why not? Be sure to consider the factors required to implement the strategy.

Student answers will vary, but could include an increase in testing, use of contact tracing, testing incentives, etc.

Possible extension

Imagine you’re writing an article on how high schools have managed the COVID-19 pandemic. Write a profile of your school from August 2020 to December 2020 following the template from the article, which is provided below.

Students:

Testing:

Safety measures:

Spring semester plans:

Sign up if you’re interested in receiving free Science News magazines plus educator resources next school year. The Society for Science’s Science News in High Schools program serves nearly 5,000 public high schools across the United States and worldwide.

Learn More