Published: Sept. 28, 2020

Last week, CU Boulder Chancellor Philip DiStefano announced that the university would temporarily halt in-person classes—moving to remote-only education until at least Oct. 8. Days later, Boulder County Public Health instituted a two-week public health order barring 18- to 22-year-olds in the county from gathering together in groups of more than two.

The moves come as coronavirus cases soared among CU Boulder students. As of Saturday, Sept. 26, 1,019 students had been diagnosed with COVID-19 through on-campus testing.

CU Boulder isn’t alone: Across the country, many universities have seen similar spikes in COVID-19 cases. The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which had been hailed for its coronavirus testing strategy, recorded roughly 1,000 positive cases by early September. On Sept. 23, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment noted 10 active outbreaks occurring at colleges in the state.

Many public health officials have also raised concerns that outbreaks that begin on college campuses won’t stay on campus. In a recent report, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that adults age 20-29 made up more than one-fifth of all confirmed COVID cases in the country over the summer. In some regions, outbreaks among young people seemed to be followed shortly after by outbreaks among older, much more vulnerable adults.

Various schools have taken different approaches toward reversing these worrisome trends. Some, like CU Boulder, have switched to remote education for short periods, while others have made the change permanent.

In Boulder, university leaders acknowledge the hardship that the recent surge in cases has caused faculty, students, staff and the wider community. But some also see glimmers of hope in the stories of other schools, such as the University of Notre Dame, that seem to have slowed outbreaks by pausing in-person learning.

“As challenging as this time is for our students, their families and our broader community, we are seeing some early signs of success at containment of this highly contagious virus at campuses very much like our own, which gives us hope that we can once again have some form of in-person instruction,” said DiStefano. “We will base our next move on the data, health officials’ guidance, and the clear need for a predictable path forward for our community.”

Diverse approaches

When COVID-19 cases began to spread throughout the U.S. in February, universities across the country were faced with a crisis not seen in more than a century. In deciding how to return to classes in the fall, these institutions took wide ranging-approaches toward addressing the evolving, and often unpredictable, challenges of educating students during a pandemic.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, as of Sept. 25, roughly 21% of four-year public universities in the U.S. were operating “primarily in person.” Almost 41%, including CU Boulder as of this week, were “primarily online.”  Most of the rest adopted a hybrid strategy.

“Campus culture and student life, the demographic make-up of the student body, local and state regulations  and campus geography, are unique to each institution and require tailored approaches suited to the individual institutions and the local circumstances,” said Pedro Ribeiro, vice president of communications for the Association of American Universities (AAU), which claims 65 members, including CU Boulder. “While AAU institutions have been sharing best practices and strategies, it’s clear there are no silver bullets and no one size fits all strategies.”

Pause button

Facing explosive COVID-19 outbreaks, a number of universities have taken steps to curtail physical classrooms in favor of Zoom lectures and labs.

Among those, Notre Dame may be the biggest success story.

The university put all of its classes online in mid-August following climbing case numbers. Since returning to in-person education in early September, the university has maintained relatively low infection rates. As of Sept. 27, for example, an average of only 1.1% of COVID-19 tests at Notre Dame had come back positive over the last week—far lower than Boulder County’s 6.7% average over five days.

Experts stress that campuses that conduct more testing will, for obvious reasons, show more positive results.

Both the University of Wisconsin-Madison and West Virginia University also report that they’ve seen cases begin to decline after the institutions made similar moves. WVU restarted in-person classes on Sept. 28, while UW launched a phased restart of campus activities beginning Sept. 26.

Not every university has been as eager to return to desks and chalkboards. Colorado College, for example, saw several of its residence halls placed under quarantine by the county health department. On Sept. 1, the college announced that it would make almost all of its classes online-only for the rest of the semester.

At CU Boulder, campus leaders are cautiously optimistic that the transition to online-only classes, along with this week’s public health order, will help bend the university’s curve—lowering infection rates so that Buffs can again sit in the same rooms as their instructors and classmates.

“This week has been tough on many levels,” said CU Boulder Provost Russ Moore.  “It’s tough for the many students recovering from COVID and their families. It’s tough for those who have barely left their rooms, made so many sacrifices and who now endure loneliness and a lack of human contact. I am hopeful we can validate these sacrifices, reduce the rate of infection and resume our in-person instruction within the safely prepared environs of our classrooms.”

To that end, Moore urged fellow Buffs to hang in there, and follow the public health orders.

“We are Buffs together—we can endure anything for two weeks—especially with the support services the campus is offering,” Moore said. “I think other universities have shown this is possible. We can do it, too.”