By Mary Kate McGrath - December 21, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic led to an unconventional fall semester for colleges and universities, with institutions implementing virus mitigation strategies, dealing with outbreaks or students violating social distancing protocol, and classes being conducted remotely or in a hybrid-model. Administrators should do their best to mitigate end-of-semester COVID-19 spread by implementing rigorous testing and public health campaigns to inform students of best-practices to keep themselves, their families, and surrounding communities safe.
With the semester ending and coronavirus cases spiking across the country, higher education leaders must do their best to mitigate the spread of the disease as students on campus head home. There are several key risk-reduction strategies administrators can take, including public health information campaigns, pre-departure testing, and conducting health or wellness check-ins for quarantined students.
While the first round of vaccines are being distributed across the United States, cases of COVID-19 are still on the rise and the threat must be taken seriously by college or university administrators. In December, the country met a bleak milestone reporting 3,000 deaths per day and cases continuing to rise, with nearly every region considered a hot spot, as per the New York Times. The nation is seeing steady case growth and an increase in the number of deaths per day, and even with improvements in the Midwest, cities in the Northeast, the South, and on the West Coast continue to raise concern.
It's difficult to document links between university outbreaks and deaths in surrounding communities, many public health experts feel there was a correlation during the fall semester, as per NY. Since the pandemic began, there have been more than 397,000 cases on more than 1,800 college campuses, resulting in more than 90 deaths involving college employees or students. These cases resulted in spikes in surrounding communities as well - meaning that colleges and universities must take active steps to mitigate further spread as students travel home.
The American College Health Association issued a series of considerations for higher education institutions sending students home at the end of the fall academic term. The document addressed key areas of concern for institutions as well as recommendations for managing messaging at the end of the semester. While every institution won't necessarily have the resources to implement the recommendations, and each college or university will have unique, regional concerns, the guide can offer several best-practices to stick to if possible.
ACHA officials recommended colleges and universities do robust COVID-19 testing, continue to use contact tracing, and take other public health steps to keep cases as low as possible before the end of the semester. Health services center should be prepared for an increase in testing requests before students leave campus. For students who have to remain on campus to quarantine or self-isolate, college health services should make a plan to check in routinely to ensure they are safe, healthy, and have access to necessities.
A campus safety app can be a valuable tool for facilitating wellness checks. A polling feature allows administrators to ask simple questions and solicit location-based responses from students until a task is complete. This tool can also help the campus health center better engage students preparing to depart for the end-of-semester, connecting them with rapid testing locations, administration offices, or health center hours as they begin to plan to leave campus safely.
The ACHA document recommends student health services actively bolster health education before students leave campus, and encourage everyone on campus to review data about COVID-19 risk near the institution, in the community, and at their final destination as they make travel decisions. The following steps should be taken by students and other community members at least two weeks before the end of semester or travel dates:
Get an influenza vaccine
Review the state travel regulations prior to leaving campus - many states require quarantines or periods of self-isolation upon arrival, especially amid rising cases
Minimize risks of exposure before leaving campus - remind students that if they get infected or are exposed to an infected person, it can disrupt plans to return home due to quarantine or self-isolation requirements.
Reduce the number of people students are interacting with prior to departure - the fewer public interactions a student has, the lower the risk for infection
The guidelines issued by the ACHA also offered "day of" travel advice, including:
Take a direct flight or, if driving, make as few stops as possible, pack drinks or snacks to minimize unnecessary stops.
Delay travel if sick or exposed to COVID-19,following advice from healthcare providers about when quarantine period will end/can resume.
Follow appropriate sanitary hygiene while traveling, wearing face masks, staying six-feet apart from people, using hand sanitizer, and washing hands frequently
The least risky travel option, if possible, is private transportation with a close friend or family member. If in a car, students should wear a mask and open the windows.
Once home, students should protect themselves and their families by quarantining to the best of their ability for 14 days, especially if there is a high-risk individual in their family, or a high prevalence of COVID-19 in the area of the college or university campus. The document also recommended several other specific actions, including:
A coronavirus response solution can distribute these checklists to the whole community, and can make the information accessible with language options and different formats as necessary. The solution can also help higher education manage ongoing end-of-semester messaging across platforms.
Administrators can reach students, faculty, and staff with institution updates and customizable content, including health tips, emergency procedures, and end-of-semester steps community members should take. The tool can also keep the community informed via emergency outreach, including new cautions or travel bans, case counts or high-risk warnings, or any current or active outbreaks on campus.
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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