There were many familiar sights as new CU Boulder students moved into their campus residence halls this week: teary-eyed parents, slightly awkward encounters between roommates, beds to make with extra-long sheets, and posters to hang up on walls.
But this year’s move-in was unlike any other in the campus’s 144-year history: Students and their loved ones wore face coverings; welcome events rolled out online; and campus residents had to show proof of negative COVID-19 tests.
For incoming freshman Alison Naeve, of San Francisco, move-in was quick and easy. And sad. She cried as she said goodbye to her parents after moving into her room at Williams Village. But being in Boulder was also a proverbial breath of fresh air, even with the wildfire smoke.
“For us at home it’s even worse,” the biomedical engineering major said of the COVID-19 situation. “It’s nice to know when your roommate comes in I can give her a hug because we know we’re both negative, and to have a community that’s been taking it seriously is good.”
For months, diverse groups from across the university have worked to get the campus ready for fall 2020, striving to make this semester as safe, and as rewarding, as possible.
University scientists and staff formed a dream team that worked to align the campus’ fall plans with the latest research into COVID-19. CU Boulder also adopted a community-based strategy to slow the spread of the virus—one in which everyone on campus, from new freshmen to maintenance workers and professors, are encouraged to do their part to “Protect Our Herd.”
“These approaches overlay one another, and I believe they provide an application of the latest science and research on COVID-19,” said Provost Russell Moore. “We’re going to continue to fine-tune our approach; we’re going to be flexible and be able to act quickly to changing conditions.”
In preparing for the unprecedented school year ahead, CU Boulder’s own researchers came to the forefront of the university’s response in collaboration with CU Boulder Medical Services.
Planning for the fall semester was “an incredible process where our researchers linked up with our top professional staff to think about how we prepare for our students returning to campus,” said Terri Fiez, vice chancellor for research and innovation.
The collaboration delivered results. As part of its fall plans, CU Boulder made facial coverings mandatory on campus, put new sanitization protocols in place and expanded classroom space and teaching hours to maintain physical distancing.
But the university also went above-and-beyond what many other campuses around the country are doing. CU Boulder, for example, boasts some of the nation’s top scientists studying how viruses can spread through microscopic droplets in the air. Drawing on their expertise, facilities’ staff overhauled ventilation systems for all of the campus’ roughly 13 million square feet of indoor space.
“It’s creating more of an outside air environment inside,” said Shannon Horn, a mechanical engineer in the Office of Facilities Management.
Testing and contact tracing will also be key to keeping campus safe. Students moving onto campus had to show proof that they had received a negative COVID-19 test within five days prior to moving in. Students that didn’t arrive with a test completed were tested on campus.
Meanwhile, CU Boulder researcher Matthew McQueen is launching a new for-credit course that will train students how to be epidemiological detectives. They’ll talk to their peers who have tested positive for COVID-19 and track down who they might have exposed as a way to curb any outbreaks.
“If we can focus on quarantining the people who were exposed to a known case, that gives us a chance to break the chain of transmission,” McQueen said.
And, to keep on breaking those chains of transmission, CU Boulder is conducting surveillance testing of its on-campus residents by monitoring their wastewater. A team of students and scientists have set up 20 wastewater monitoring stations across campus, which may be able to spot emerging infections in residence halls. Such surveillance could help the university get a head start on conducting targeted testing of individuals before they even begin to show symptoms.
For the university’s students themselves, from newcomers in residence halls to doctoral candidates, CU Boulder may look very different this year. The university has sought to redesign the student experience to account for the coronavirus—while also ensuring that learners don’t miss out on what makes college fun and fulfilling.
Students, faculty and staff will begin each day by filling out a health questionnaire, checking off whether they’ve felt any symptoms of COVID-19.
They may check into their first morning class online along with about half of the students in the course. The other half may be with the instructor in-person, sitting in chairs spaced at least 6 feet apart.
When it’s time for them to attend classes physically, students may recognize a lot of the covered faces around them: They may belong to the same cohort of learners who live together in a residence hall and share many of their courses.
Throughout their day on campus, students, staff and faculty members will also be asked to serve as leaders for their communities—engaging in behaviors that care for the people around them. The same applies to students who live off campus. Some of them will act as “block captains,” partnering with the city of Boulder to decrease the risk of the pandemic spreading in the community.
The goal of all of these initiatives, of course, is to ensure the state’s flagship university can fulfill its mission to educate the next generation of citizens and leaders and foster the spirit of discovery through research.
“We have to do what we can to safely be on campus so we can stay open and continue working toward our degrees,” said CU Student Government tri-executive Isaiah Chavous. “It will require all students to take on an introspective lens and an increase in self-awareness that ensures we prioritize our health before anything else.”