BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Colleges and universities that reopened their campuses for in-person instruction in late summer significantly contributed to COVID-19 case counts in the counties where they’re based, with the total number of cases per week eclipsing that of several countries combined. These results are based on the first two weeks since reopening, and as campuses institute new public health protocols, continued monitoring is needed to learn the most effective best practices in reducing case counts.
Those findings and recommendations are from a new study from Indiana University and other institutions that discovered reopening of campuses for face-to-face instruction was associated with an approximate estimate of around 1.2 new cases per day for a county of 50,000 population, or 3,000 total new cases per day across the entire U.S. At 21,000 new cases per week, returning college students are responsible for more than the combined weekly case counts of Canada, Kenya, Italy, South Korea, Sweden, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand, the researchers said.
“College Openings, Mobility, and the Incidence of COVID-19 Cases,” was co-authored by IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs Professor Kosali Simon and School of Public Health Assistant Professor Ana Bento, along with colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the University of Washington, Seattle, and Davidson College.
The authors used a method called “difference in differences”—a model that looks at the differences between two groups and how those differences change over time—to develop their estimates. They compared county-level data two weeks after a campus reopened to the two weeks prior.
“Our results are consistent with new research from the CDC showing that Americans in their 20s now accounting for more cases than people in any other age group. The efforts moving forward should be on making sure communities on and around campuses reduce their activities and follow the tried and tested behaviors of mask and social distance” said Bento.
“We tracked aggregated cell phone movement on- and off-campuses and daily county-level COVID-19 data,” said Davidson College Assistant Professor Chris Marsicano, who directs the College Crisis Initiative. “The increase in mobility around college campuses—that is, new mobile devices moving in and around a campus—was more than 50 percent for those schools utilizing face-to-face learning, but there was still a sharp uptick (more than 30 percent) on those campuses operating in a predominantly online environment.”
But once they’re on campus, it’s best to keep them there, Simon said.
“Our own research and research from others shows mobility may be a driving factor in rising case counts,” Simon said. “Once students have arrived on campus, though, it’s to the public’s benefit that they remain there. Sending students home, especially sick ones, only increases the risk of spreading the virus to wherever the student came from initially.”
The researchers noted the major quandary institutions of higher education faced late this summer in determining whether to reopen to students or remain in an online learning ecosystem.
“These organizations have done a lot to try and reduce the risk of COVID-19 on their campuses and in their surrounding communities,” Marsicano said. “Our results in no way indicate that they have failed or not done enough. Rather, the results show how hard it is to fight this disease and limit the spread.”
As campuses evaluate their options for spring 2021, Simon said institutions should look beyond the local health environment of the campus itself, and look at other factors such as the conditions of where the students are coming from.
About the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs
The O’Neill School is a world leader in public and environmental affairs and is the largest school of public administration and public policy in the United States. In the 2021 "Best Graduate Public Affairs Programs" by U.S. News & World Report, the O'Neill School ranks first in the country. Four of its specialty programs are ranked in the top-five listings, including nonprofit management, ranked first.