As Colorado’s college campuses reopen, schools look to students to help control COVID-19

The move by several major universities last week to switch to remote learning in the face of campus COVID-19 infections is a good reminder that the best laid plans of Buffs and Rams have the potential to go awry.

The University of North Carolina, Michigan State University and the University of Notre Dame responded to clusters of new coronavirus cases by at least temporarily shutting down in-person learning.

With the fall semester beginning this week at the University of Colorado, Colorado State University, the University of Northern Colorado and other campuses around the state, higher-education leaders are hoping to avoid that fate. And they’re looking to their students to help accomplish that.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this,” said Ken McConnellogue, spokesman for CU’s four-campus system. “We’re all doing similar things, but the situations are different. If there is a common denominator across our campuses or nationally, it’s that students have it in their hands to a great degree how successful this can be. We can do all we can on our campuses, but when they’re off campus or in the community, we can’t monitor them or control them.”

Similarly, Colorado State University President Joyce McConnell issued a sharply worded statement last week to CSU students, saying she knew most of them were responsible, caring and empathetic.

“However, some of you are not,” McConnell wrote. “To those of you who are not compliant with state, county and university health protocols: You may be the reason someone loses their life … If each and every one of you, whether living on campus or off, does not act to mitigate transmission, we will return to remote operations this semester.”

In Boulder, home to CU’s flagship campus and the state’s largest university, Chana Goussetis, spokeswoman for Boulder County Public Health, said the health agency would prefer that thousands of students from across the country weren’t coming into the city right now. But she understands the need to reopen the campus, which went virtual in March as the pandemic spread.

“From a strictly public health communicable disease perspective, it’s a lot more work, it’s a lot harder, a lot more risk for students to come back,” Goussetis said. “That said, there is a lot of hardship and impact to our community if CU isn’t open — all the jobs, the mental health impacts … it wouldn’t be easier for us in terms of people losing jobs and not being able to see doctors and all of the things that could come from not having those folks have jobs.”

Goussetis said her biggest concern about CU re-opening is off-campus social gatherings — something Gov. Jared Polis also noted at a news conference on Friday. “We’re worried about the socializing that’s customary and a meaningful part of the college experience,” he said.

But overall, Goussetis said she feels confident in the CU’s plan to re-open.

“They have done a ton,” Goussetis said. “We’ve been working really closely with CU, CU Boulder police and the city as well as the neighbors on (University) Hill. We’ve all been meeting, talking about messaging about enforcement actions and outreach events, so there’s been a ton going on all in partnership.”

Concerns about facilities

Tracy Ferrell, a senior instructor in CU Boulder’s Program for Writing and Rhetoric, said she understands many people have been working hard to prepare the campus for students’ return. Still, after checking on her teaching space days before her semester begins Monday, Ferrell said she has been convinced the administration should have started remotely.

Ferrell was assigned to teach in a theater on campus for social distancing purposes and is tasked with figuring out how her 18-person discussion class will have small group conversations when some students are seated up in a balcony and others below.

While signs encouraging the campus to wash and sanitize hands dotted the university grounds, Ferrell said every hand sanitizer dispenser she tried was empty.

Candace Smith, a CU spokeswoman, said there were supply chain challenges with getting cleaning supplies, but that dispensers would be filled by Monday and that all cleaning supplies needed for the semester were accounted for now.

“I realize there are people trying really hard and that they’ve spent a lot of money, and I’m not denigrating the work of the people working hard to get everything done, but the administration needs to pony up and say, ‘Look, we made the wrong decision. What looks right in May no longer looks right, and we’re just going to move things online,’ ” Ferrell said. “It’s going to get blamed on the students, and they’re adults, so they should shoulder some of the blame, but at the same time, it ultimately comes down to the administration and the decisions they make and what’s safe for everybody.”

Benchmarks to go online

Joanne Addison, chair of the CU Faculty Council, said she was concerned the university hadn’t issued specific benchmarks outlining what would trigger a switch to remote learning.

When The Denver Post asked whether the COVID-19 death of a student, staff or faculty member would trigger a switch to remote learning, Smith did not answer the question.

“There are several factors that would influence whether CU Boulder would move to remote learning, including but not limited to how well are our protocols working; compliance; our response and trends, specifically numbers of positive cases and capacity of isolation spaces,” Smith said. “There are also factors outside of our control that could influence decisions regarding modes of operation such as county or state health guidance.”

Goussetis said there is no magic number of cases or outbreaks that would trigger a switch to fully remote learning, but that the public health agency and university would be monitoring to see whether they’re able to keep up with testing and contract tracing.

CU has been testing students as they move into the dorms, and recorded 13 positive cases last week out of 2,096 students tested. CU has set aside housing on the Boulder campus for quarantining such students.

Fort Lewis College in Durango on Friday announced it had placed seven people in isolation after four tested positive for COVID-19 and three had inconclusive results.

And 155 students in a Colorado College dorm have been quarantined after one of them tested positive for COVID-19.

“If we’re starting to see more than 20 cases a day, that might be beyond our scope,” Goussetis said of CU.

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