US campus reopening plans ‘tied to politics, not public health’

In-person instruction during Covid linked to Republican states and whiter student bodies

October 13, 2020
Scientist disinfects a surface
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Decisions by US universities to offer in-person classes this term appear to have been driven largely by politics and race, rather than health considerations, a nationwide analysis has concluded.

The Davidson College-based College Crisis Initiative, comparing data on more than 2,900 institutions, found that those in states with Republican governors were less likely to choose online instruction for the autumn.

The tally by the initiative, a project to study how US colleges are handling the pandemic, also found a correlation between percentages of white students and the likelihood of offering in-person instruction.

At the same time, the data showed a limited relationship between the mode of instruction and actual levels of nearby Covid infections, said an author of the study, Dan Fitzpatrick, an education policy researcher at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

The only significant correlation on that measure, Dr Fitzpatrick said, was that colleges were found more likely to teach in an online format this autumn if their state was placed in the top fifth nationwide as measured by total infections per population.

Even high county-level Covid case counts made no apparent difference in teaching formats, regardless of state-wide infection rates, Dr Fitzpatrick said. “Overall, the decision on mode of operation was not responsive to local severity of the pandemic,” he said.

The study, published ahead of peer review, did not explore reasons behind the data, Dr Fitzpatrick said. But the preference for in-person instruction at institutions with whiter student bodies and located in states with Republican leadership appeared to affirm widely understood partisan attitudes toward the danger posed by the coronavirus pandemic, he said.

Colleges, both public and private, are affected by the politics of the world around them, Dr Fitzpatrick said. “We can’t pretend that they’re somehow set aside from politics,” he said.

Data compiled by several groups – including the College Crisis Initiative – show that the reopening of colleges this autumn has led to some 2,000 to 3,000 additional Covid infections each day nationwide. A New York Times count shows more than 171,000 infections at US colleges since late July, including 48,000 since late September.

The Trump administration, however, has persistently criticised colleges that have been reluctant to fully reopen. In a press briefing attributed to a senior administration official, the White House this week referenced “78,000 so-called cases in college campuses, since college classes resumed”, calling the numbers a result of “forced testing of college campus students that were asymptomatic”.

“And there are, so far, to my knowledge, 13 hospitalisations, seven of which are at one university, and zero deaths,” the White House official said.

At least two young college students, however, are already reported to have died from Covid infections this semester –20-year-old Jamain Stephens at California University of Pennsylvania, and 19-year-old Chad Dorrill at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.

And for the thousands of cases spreading daily from college campuses to surrounding communities, the overall case fatality rate in the US suggests that more than one of every 50 will die.

US universities undoubtedly faced difficult decisions on reopening their campuses, that involved numerous competing interests and considerations about student experiences, budgetary constraints and more, Dr Fitzpatrick said.

“But the decisions that they made appear to not have been primarily responding to the local conditions on the ground, in terms of case counts, as their driving factor,” he said.

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