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Safely Bringing Students Back on Campus: 5 Best Practices

Bill Leigh

5 best practices for safely bringing students back on campus.

After more than a year of disruption, getting students back to campus is a top priority for university administrators. In our COVID-19 work with higher education institutions, we’ve seen a whirlwind of nearly constant change over the last year. There were shifting return dates, outbreaks that needed containment, and protocols that evolved from having no testing in place to testing everyone regardless of symptoms. Along the way, we’ve all learned a lot. 

Fortunately, the outlook for Fall 2021 is brighter. The proliferation of vaccines has given hope that something close to normal life can return. Still, there are plenty of unknowns to be prepared for, and outbreaks can still happen. How can higher education institutions effectively plan for a safe return to campus in Fall 2021? 

Based on statistical modeling and our own hands-on experience working with universities, we’ve developed these five best practices for safely bringing students back on campus in Fall 2021. 

1. Take a clear stance on vaccinations.

The safest practice is to require that students and staff be vaccinated in order to return to campus in the fall. But for various reasons, some universities may be reluctant or unable to institute such a requirement. Whatever your position is on vaccinations, make sure you communicate it clearly to your community — and be prepared to hold the line. 

  • Know the vaccination status of your population. It’s important to know what proportion of your on-campus population is vaccinated. If you’re running vaccination programs for employees, either track the number of employees vaccinated yourself or use a vaccination platform that provides a dashboard that helps you keep track of your vaccinated population. Until vaccination is widespread — that means a vaccination rate of at least 70 percent for herd immunity — testing will be an important tool to identify and mitigate potential outbreaks.
  • Make vaccines available. Make vaccines easily accessible – don’t leave it to students and staff to find vaccines themselves. Instead, bring the service to the individuals directly. Host vaccine clinics on campus, or partner with an organization that can support your population with vaccines to increase vaccine uptake.

2. Conduct pre-arrival testing.

Whether you’re requiring vaccinations or not, the best way to reduce the risk of introducing COVID-19 cases on campus is to ensure everyone has negative test results prior to arrival. Currently available COVID-19 vaccines are around 95% effective against severe cases which means there could be breakthrough positive cases. Protect your campus community with a pre-arrival testing program that’s easy to administer. 

  • Send self-swab test kits to students at home. Students collect samples while at home and ship them overnight to the testing lab. Results can be automatically sent to the student, to university health services, and to public health authorities if required. 

3. Maintain an ongoing cadence of viral testing on campus. 

Ongoing viral testing is essential precisely because some populations will be vaccinated and some won’t. More likely, you’ll have a partially vaccinated campus population, ideally trending toward widespread vaccine uptake. As the share that’s vaccinated approaches the herd immunity threshold, you’ll be able to transition away from broad viral testing. Our Testing and Vaccines Modeling Tool shows how levels of vaccine uptake and testing frequency interact to reduce transmission in group settings. 

  • Use routine testing to prevent outbreaks until vaccine coverage is widespread. Testing everyone — regardless of whether they show symptoms — will be key to mitigating outbreaks. Studies have shown that up to 30% of positive COVID-19 cases have been from asymptomatic or presymptomatic individuals. In the 2020-2021 academic year, universities that only tested symptomatic individuals often saw outbreaks that put their campus and surrounding communities at risk. 
  • Continue to use viral testing to diagnose symptomatic individuals. Viral tests will still be important after vaccination adoption has met the goal for herd immunity. The ability to quickly identify and isolate individuals who test positive for COVID-19 is essential to mitigating outbreaks. Pooled testing can speed up testing of large numbers of people. This approach takes samples from a group of people and performs a combined molecular test. If the test is negative, the group receives negative test results. If the pooled result is positive, each person must be individually tested to identify those with positive tests.
  • Make testing easy and convenient for students, staff, and administrators. Testing can be a simple, low-overhead process that blends into the background. The key is to choose a testing partner with easy-to-use software, streamlined logistics, and automated processes.
    • Test management software should make it easy for participants to activate and complete their tests.
    • Administrators can use software dashboards to track campus health.
    • Prepaid shipping labels help get samples to the lab right away.
    • Automated text reminders help keep students and staff in compliance.
    • Secure, automated results delivery keeps participants and administrators informed while taking care of mandatory reporting to authorities.

4. Be prepared for positive cases.

Even with a partially vaccinated population, positive cases can still emerge. These can spread rapidly through congregate settings, such as dormitories and dining halls. If you have an emerging outbreak, you might need to test thousands of individuals in a few days. Make this scenario manageable by having a rapid-response infrastructure in place that’s easily accessible and ready to implement.

  • Isolate and treat individuals who test positive. Move quickly to separate individuals with active COVID-19 infections from the general population to prevent widespread outbreaks.
  • Continuously monitor the level of COVID-19 transmission in the surrounding community. Higher levels of infection in the surrounding community increase the risk of introducing new cases on campus. Monitor public health data to keep track of community infection rates.
  • Consider surveillance testing. After vaccinations are widespread and proactive testing is no longer critical, consider testing a random population sample, to track case rates and prevent outbreaks on campus.

5. Track the health of your campus population.

To ensure a safe environment for students and staff, you’ll want to have visibility into your population’s health. Positive cases, outbreaks, and vaccine rates are all key data points that will help you make informed decisions for your campus community.

  • Use test result dashboards to track community health. In addition to knowing the percent of the population that’s vaccinated, it’s essential to know whether positive test results are trending upward to stay ahead of outbreaks.
  • Subdivide your campus population into cohorts. This will enable you to anticipate and intervene in communities, dormitories, sports teams, departments, or staff cohorts that are trending upward in positive cases. 

We’re all hopeful for a smooth and safe return to campus that looks close to normal. Making that happen requires being prepared, even as vaccination rates continue to rise. Follow these five best practices and you’ll be ready to have students and staff back on campus safely.

For additional recommendations for a safe return to campus, get our latest Return to Campus Guide

Ready to discuss how Color can help you safely bring students and staff back to campus? Contact sales.

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