By Mary Kate McGrath - September 7, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated the Fall semester for colleges and universities across the United States, with many schools opting for a fully remote semester or welcoming students back with strict social distancing measures in place. In August, many institutions had already begun to experience an outbreak of the coronavirus, requiring students to self-quarantine in their dorm rooms or return home after several weeks. However, some schools have found a creative strategy for preventing or mitigating COVID-19 transmission on campus - leveraging students for a contact tracing workforce.
In August, students at Texas A&M University became certified case investigators for the new Texas A&M COVID Operations and Investigations Center, a joint contact tracing initiative between the school and the Brazos County Health Department to track the local spread of the virus, as per NBC. Texas A&M isn’t the only university to have college-age students interested in the program, as, since May, nearly 4,000 U.S. college students have enrolled in Johns Hopkins University’s online contact tracing course.
Suyash Gupta, a Texas A&M undergraduate working with the contact tracing team, discussed the high-stakes position, saying, “I've gotten many phone calls where people are scared, anxious, all kinds of emotions.” He noted that contact tracers, in addition to informing residents of exposure to the virus, were responsible for calming down the caller and connecting them with resources, such as free local clinics or food assistance programs.
Being a student contact tracer has its benefits - for example, Gupta had to make calls to Texas A&M athletes who tested positive or might have been exposed, and as false information and ambivalence around the practice have become more widespread, having that peer-to-peer trust was extremely helpful, as per NBC.
However working with the student community also presents challenges, especially as Greek life and other students continue to flout regulations and gather on campus. As colleges grapple with students violating social distancing protocol, student contact tracers expressed frustration at peers who were continuing to host parties or social events. “Every single party we see on Twitter, every single activity that we see while we're on campus where people aren't social distancing, it kind of puts us a step backwards,” Gupta told NBC.
Other colleges and universities are hoping to benefit from a student contact tracing workforce, leveraging both students looking to gain work or education as a contact tracer, and the trust and rapport community members can bring to the position. Ohio State University trained 50 students to join a contact tracing workforce, while the University of South Florida, which has a student body of over 50,000 students, will enlist 100 students to assist with both contact tracing for the state health department and staffing a county testing site on campus, according to NBC.
Syracuse University also hired a team of students to facilitate swab testing as students arrived on campus, and these individuals will participate in contact tracing efforts as well. Not only do these positions benefit students, faculty, and staff, but they also allow the school to protect the public health of surrounding communities, minimizing the risk of a return-to-campus approach.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, students have proven eager to help with emergency response efforts, leveraging their knowledge and on-campus resources to provide vital resources. At Vermont College, Saint Michael’s Fire and Rescue, a response league led by students and alumni, continued to operate its 24-hour emergency response services, helping to unburden overtaxed EMTs and addressing medical needs in the community, as per WCAX.
The student-run, volunteer team manages the only ambulance for Winooski, Vermont, and serves as a mutual aid service for nearby Essex and Essex junction. Many students who stayed on to serve gave up the opportunity to return home, feeling an obligation to the community they’d come to know over the course of their college years.
Professors and students in engineering or computer science programs in the United States have also used the power of 3D printing to bolster supplies of PPE for healthcare or frontline workers. Colin Evans, a student from Hampstead, Maryland used a 3D printer to supply 130 ear savers and mask filter caps for medical providers at a local hospital, as per York Dispatch. Evans, who is studying mechanical engineering at York College, became interested in the technology after attending a seminar on the subject the year before.
Similarly, a team at MIT initiated mass production of disposable plastic face shields to be used as medical PPE. The mechanical engineering department at the university will produce the single-use face shields using a process known as die-cutting, in which machines cut the shields from thousands of flat sheets per hour. Hospitals will then receive boxes of these shields, and can quickly fold them into three-dimensional face shields that will further protect against the aerosol spread of the disease.
Many other students have contributed their time and services to help aid communities during the pandemic, both mitigating the spread of the disease and providing relief amid the economic fallout, as per Chronicle of Higher Ed. Students have scoured campuses for spare PPE to donate amid the peak of the virus, helped transition buildings and parking lots into COVID-19 testing sites, and converted dormitories, gymnasiums, and conference centers to help hospitals bolster facilities.
Other colleges have stepped up to address the food scarcity crisis, assisting food banks or other organizations to provide resources and supplies to the community. For students who are more ambivalent about being physically present in the community, some have found a way to serve senior citizens who may not be as technologically literate, virtually walking these individuals through devices or tools necessary to access telehealth care. Students are eager to contribute and learn, and college leaders can proactively reach out to these individuals about participating in various mutual aid efforts.
A coronavirus recovery solution can facilitate higher education institutions looking to leverage community members for pandemic response. The process - which can be mutually beneficial, giving students the opportunity to give back to the community while gaining real-world job experience - can be aided with the help of a critical communications system. Conduct outreach to students with coronavirus updates, schedule updates, and any relevant opportunities to participate in community service or apply for a contact tracing position.
By reaching out to students via mass notification, administrators present relevant opportunities to students, without putting too much pressure on community members to participate.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.
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