The fall 2020 semester at universities saw significant changes in core activities such as education, research, and public service. Universities walked the fine line between maintaining a semblance of normalcy on campus, while keeping everyone as safe as possible from the coronavirus. What became clear is that no one institution possessed all the answers, leading to rapid changes throughout the fall to balance the needs of the university community.
So, what can students and parents expect in January?
Expect an infection surge in January. Students will return to campus in January with infections. Many of them will come from areas with higher positivity rates than their campus and university communities. In addition, their trips back to campus via bus, train, or airplane will pose their own additional infection risk. Given that as many as 50% of infected students are asymptomatic, many will return infected, contagious, and with no symptoms. Testing upon arrival will eventually reveal such infections.
Expect widespread surveillance testing. Universities like Duke and Cornell conducted widespread surveillance testing with rapid response times to detect infections quickly, both symptomatic and asymptomatic. It worked. These campuses kept the total number of students infected manageable, and were able to keep students on campus through the semester. The greatest risk for viral spread is from asymptomatic infections. Expect more universities to ramp up for surveillance testing of all students.
Weather makes a difference. In the fall, weather shifted from warm to colder weather as the semester progressed. When students return in January, this will be the coldest period of the season. The good news is that with each passing week, average temperatures will climb. This will make it easier to move more activities outdoors in some locations.
Build bridges, not barriers. Punishing students for not adhering to face coverings in public, social distancing protocols, and hand hygiene will be replaced by more effective communication campaigns, including building bridges with students through student organizations. With improving weather, universities will sponsor more outdoor events for students to safely gather and socialize. Such events will create an environment more conducive to adherent behavior for all.
Limit off campus travel. Students are safest on campus. Travel away from campus creates infection risk. As such, spring break will be replaced by a series of one-day, midweek holidays to give students a respite from the semester grind and encourage them to stay on campus and in the community. If students remain local, campuses will inherit fewer rogue infections.
College sports. Lessons learned from fall football and winter basketball will pay dividends. Many delayed fall and winter sports will be retooled with modified spring schedules. Spring sports like baseball and women’s softball will begin to resemble their normal seasons, with the necessary precautions in place.
The spring semester will begin a lot like the fall semester, but with experience and lessons learned, it will likely end with a more positive trajectory. The hope is that cases nationwide will moderate after the December/January surge, paving a safer path for campus life and student activities. The prospect of a vaccine being widely distributed by the summer of 2021 could make the fall 2021 semester look even more like previous years.
The transition to a new normal will remain a work in progress for many years, but in spring 2021, a glimmer of new possibilities will emerge.
Sheldon H. Jacobson is a founder professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Janet A. Jokela is the acting regional dean of the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Urbana-Champaign.
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