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Housing plans, number of cases: How other colleges and universities are faring in the pandemic

By May, colleges and universities had developed a spectrum of plans for holding a fall semester amid a pandemic. Now, as other schools in the Triangle move online, Duke is still hosting classes on-campus while other schools across the country try to do the same. 

Since the beginning of the summer, students returning to campus and preliminary case numbers have given insight into what has and what hasn’t worked as colleges have solidified their final plans. 

Adjusted housing plans

Duke was not alone in its efforts to reduce residence hall capacity for the fall. Many other schools were pushed to reduce dorm capacity, leaving some students with nowhere to live on campus. 

Princeton University, Johns Hopkins University and Columbia University all initially planned to welcome first-years and sophomores to campus but announced fully remote undergraduate experiences for all students in August. Only those who cannot return home or are unable to participate in remote learning from home will be approved for on-campus living. 

Of those schools electing to open residence halls for the fall, many are choosing to prioritize first-years in the process. 

Harvard University was one of the first schools to announce, earlier in July, that all undergraduate classes would be held remotely. In the same manner, on-campus housing capacity would be reduced to 40%, prioritizing first-years and students with demonstrated need. 

The decision was made to “[allow] first-years the opportunity to adjust to college academics and to begin creating connections with faculty and other classmates, while learning on campus in September,” according to a Harvard news release.

The University of Chicago will also mostly house first-years, though sophomores can apply for housing and juniors and seniors can add themselves to a housing waitlist. 

Yale University chose to provide first-years, juniors and seniors with housing for the fall semester and sophomores, juniors and seniors with housing for the spring semester. 

On August 28th, just two weeks before the start of the semester, Northwestern University—which uses a quarter system—announced that all first-years and sophomores would be fully remote for the fall quarter. These students were also discouraged from returning to the Evanston, Ill. area. 

These schools plan to house most students in individual rooms, though some students will live in suites with shared living spaces and bathrooms. 

Ending before Thanksgiving Break—or not

Two main pathways emerged when rescheduling the fall semester—moving the start of the semester up to early August or pushing the start of classes further into late August, and, in some cases, September. 

The University of Notre Dame began classes Aug. 10, a week before Duke’s undergraduate classes resumed and two weeks before Notre Dame’s planned start date. North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill both started the same day as Notre Dame. 

Those schools chose to shift the semester forward from their anticipated start date to accommodate an accelerated fall semester with few to no breaks and finals concluding before Thanksgiving weekend. 

Other schools made the decision either to keep the same start date or to make less-drastic changes, with many of them moving online after Thanksgiving break—including for final exams. 

Vanderbilt—which resumed classes Aug. 24—will wrap up in-person classes before Thanksgiving before ending with a week of online classes and remote exams after Thanksgiving. Yale, which moved up its start date two days to Aug. 31, will do the same, with final exams running until Dec. 18.

The decision not to move start dates up dramatically allowed these schools to make final adjustments to their reopening plans, including adjustments to housing, and to assess the successes and failures experienced during the reopening of other schools.

Testing, up to three times per week

All of the universities included in this article all require some form of initial and/or mandatory surveillance testing. All are also requiring students to complete a daily symptom log, similar to Duke’s SymMon app. 

The University of Chicago, Harvard and Duke all chose to test students upon arrival, and Northwestern and Notre Dame mailed students test kits ahead of time and asked them to return them before returning to campus. Although Duke only asked students to sequester for 24-48 hours until receiving their test results, Harvard quarantined all students for 14 days during which students were tested two additional times. 

In addition to entry testing requirements, all these schools have instituted some form of surveillance testing. These efforts aim to identify asymptomatic students before the virus spreads. 

Duke announced its plan to pool test students, faculty and staff last month. Students who are selected to test must complete a five-minute, self-administered test the day after receiving of a text or email notification. 

Vanderbilt is planning to test all undergraduate students weekly, while Yale plans to do so twice weekly. Harvard went even further, with tests every three days for students living on campus.

The cases comparison

Notre Dame, Harvard, Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Yale all have easily accessible online case trackers. Some schools reported cases by the day, some by the week and some cumulatively—or a combination of all three. Duke’s tracker reports positive tests weekly, with a cumulative total since Aug. 2.

In Duke’s latest report, which covered Aug. 22 to Aug. 28, six undergraduate and graduate students tested positive out of 5,358 tests. This brings the total student cases to 29 since move-in began. 

Among other  schools across the country, some—like Yale, which has only reported 7 positive tests among students since Aug. 1, and Harvard, which has seen 14 known student cases since June 1—have had fewer known cases of COVID-19. Others have not fared as well. 

Notre Dame reports positive tests daily, and has reported 608 positive tests since Aug. 3, causing the school to move classes online temporarily in mid-August. The university announced Aug. 28 that it would gradually resume in-person classes Sept. 2.

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